“You’re eighteen. You’re an adult. You decide.”

Claudia’s mom described a recent conversation she’d had with her daughter.

Claudia had just turned eighteen and was struggling to decide… well, everything… whether to get a job and what kind of job or maybe she should go to community college or go on a road trip with her friends even though she had next to no money of her own…

Claudia had no idea what she wanted to do. Claudia’s mom was frustrated.

Up to the week before, when Claudia turned eighteen, her mom’s parenting style had been heavy-handed. Claudia had always had to follow a long list of rules and check in with her mom frequently. She had very little choice in what she did, when, or with whom.

Now she was eighteen. And Claudia was faced with decision-making on an adult level … without any practice.

Decision-making takes practice

When I was growing up, kids arguably had more freedom and responsibility, even at a young age. I was entrusted to walk to friends’ houses by myself, go to the corner store, and walk to the bus stop which was on a four-lane road several blocks away. I was also expected to do chores around the house and yard.

I negotiated playdates with my friends over the phone and had long stretches of unstructured playtime with them. It was not unusual. Most kids did the same. My parents were more protective than most and I had less freedom (and less responsibility) than my friends.

But I had the freedom to make decisions and learn from the consequences.

Decision-making is a life skill

If we don’t give our kids the chance to learn decision-making in childhood and instead spring it on them once they reach eighteen, we can’t expect that they will suddenly be good decision-makers.

Kids need practice.

Another friend’s daughter, Izzy, grew up in a sheltered environment with an abundance of rules all of which were meant to protect her — from outside dangers AND herself and all the ‘bad decisions’ she might make because she didn’t ‘know any better.’

She never got to make any choices… not in a supportive, low-stakes environment anyway.

Behind the scenes, she started making a lot of choices by the time she hit high school. Most of them in secret because she had no other way of expressing herself.

Her choices ended up being a lot of ‘bad decisions’ just like her mom predicted.

What happened when she went off to college?

The minute she had freedom — no holds barred — without the skill and experience to handle it, she struggled with less-than-ideal choices. She skipped tons of classes, partied a lot, things got messy, and she dropped out.

Would things have been different if Izzy had had both freedom and responsibility so she could practice making the small choices — what to wear, which friends to hang out with — and experience the consequences?

Maybe if she had been able to practice making low-stakes choices all along, even if they weren’t always good ones, she would’ve been learning how to handle freedom and what kind of decisions she could live with.

If we teach kids from a very young age to make decisions by giving them low-stakes, everyday choices, we help them develop the skills to make better choices.

By making even small choices regularly, throughout every day, kids are learning from the consequences of their choices and developing independent thinking skills.

In comparison, Chelsea grew up on a farm and had to take care of the small animals to help her family out from the time she was five. A lot of responsibility for a little kid.

But also, a lot of opportunities to practice making decisions.

She had to check the animals’ water and food and check on the baby goats and chicks. Had to move the baby chicks’ heat lamp if she thought they were getting cold and round them back into the coop.

She also got to play with the animals and nurse the baby goats. She made lots of small, low-stakes choices every time she interacted with them. She had a lot of responsibility but also had the freedom to make decisions that she thought would be good for the animals.

How kids learn decision-making

Kids are practicing decision-making skills from a very young age. They are making and testing their choices in low-stakes ways and learning from them nearly every waking moment.

Your toddler is making a choice when they climb on the outside of the stairs and risk falling. The stakes are too high in this case and you likely put up some kind of gate to protect them.

But what about when they play in the mud or go crazy with the finger-paints?

If you can manage the mess, your kid is learning from their choices. If they splash mud on their face and don’t like it, they (after a few more tests) will likely stop doing it. They are testing things out to see what happens, what the consequences are, and what choice they will want to make next time.

Your three-year-old is making a choice when they push the limits of bedtime and angle to stay up later. They are likely using their newly discovered negotiation skills to see if they can convince you to read just one more bedtime story. Depending on how you react, they will learn from their choice and alter their behavior.

Your eight-year-old is making choices at the playground when he and his friends play a game of tag. He’s assessing risk and experiencing consequences when he runs and forms alliances with his friends. It looks like play, but it is also a series of low-stakes decision-making practice.

At every age, kids test their decision-making skills by pushing boundaries and pushing their parents to be given choices.

It might be small things like what food they want or what clothes they want to wear, or more consequence-oriented things like how high to climb in a tree, how hard to push themselves in a game of soccer, how far to argue for the toy they want.

Studies show that the cognitive and emotional development kids gain from early decision-making is important. It can impact their ability to make good choices later on.

Early practice is important.

Claudia’s mom ripped off the bubble wrap when, but not a moment before, Claudia turned eighteen, and then seemed surprised when Claudia felt overwhelmed by choice — job, community college, road trip — and didn’t know what to do.

Unlike this situation, if we give our kids the opportunities to practice making choices from early childhood, they will get better at it. Why? Because, like all things, ‘making choices’ that lead to good decisions is a skill that takes practice.

What low-stakes practice looks like

Parents often add more rules and control their kids’ lives out of a desire to protect them. So, where’s the line between constructive protection and overprotection?

That line has to do with stakes. If the stakes are low, risk is low. Kids can learn by making choices in a setting that ultimately won’t cause real harm (and to be clear, I am not advocating for ignoring your child or putting them in danger).

You might be frustrated by their choices, but it is still important to give them a chance to make them.

You might wish for example, that your eleven-year-old didn’t get overly zealous with pumpkin carving and end up botching the design and injuring their finger in the process — but the stakes are low — no real harm was done. And your kid learned a lot.

Or what about when your kid wants to make pancakes, do you step in and control every aspect of the process so that the pancakes turn out well? Or do you let them leave the mashed bananas a little lumpy or let them add extra chocolate chips?

These are small choices, but for your child, they are the freedom to learn from the consequences. And the worst that happens? You eat some very ‘creative’ pancakes. Low-stakes.

If kids learn to handle small amounts of both freedom and responsibility in low-stakes situations, they build up confidence and skill.

Chelsea had a lot of responsibility — helping out on the farm at age five — but it was still a low-stakes situation. Her parents would check on the animals too.

But they gave her the space to bond with the animals and practice making decisions. She also had the freedom to play with them and learn about them and what they needed.

By the time she was in high school, she also took care of the cows. She took on the responsibility and made good decisions about their care because she’d had a lot of practice already and she’d also had the independence to learn on her own.

What if your kid feels pressured to always ‘get it right’ — do their homework dutifully, not play too exuberantly, or not leave their room a mess?

Say they want to have a chance to not ‘get it right’ every time, but they don’t take or get the chance to. They are missing out on the opportunity to make choices and experience the consequences.

A few missed homework assignments aren’t the end of the world. And if your kid doesn’t like getting a lower grade, they will learn from their choices and (eventually) they may work harder if they want a better grade.

A few scraped knees or a messy room are also low-stakes situations. Your kid is learning from testing out their choices.

What your kid is learning is worth a lot more than if they have a perfect room, never scraped a knee, and don’t have enough freedom to test out some less-than-stellar choices, when the stakes are low.

What smart parenting looks like

Giving kids a balance of freedom and responsibility helps them practice making choices and learning from the consequences.

We might think that we are protecting our kids from even the smallest bad outcome by protecting them from making choices. But by protecting them from practicing making choices, we are decreasing their opportunity to learn how.

Instead, if we give our kids the chance to make those choices — splashing in the mud puddle, too many chocolate chips in the pancakes — they experience the outcome for themselves. We don’t even need to say anything. We don’t need to say, ‘See I told you so.’ That doesn’t need to be part of the process.

We can take a positive, ‘all is right with the world’ attitude when our kids are testing, practicing, and learning. So what if we eat some weird pancakes or have some failed jack-o-lanterns along the way?

It’s on us to shift our attitude from wanting perfectly controlled outcomes to wanting to give our kids the chance to learn on their own.

It might be less perfect, lots messier, and certainly not as controlled, but when we support our kids’ process of learning to make choices, we too are making a smart choice.

Claudia’s mom was very strict about how much time Claudia needed to study, the grades she should be getting, and when she could see or even text her friends before she turned eighteen. As a result, Claudia’s main goal was to disagree with her mom, not learn to make her own decisions.

At eighteen, without practice, the leap into decision-making was huge.

Smart parenting is about giving our kids a full eighteen years of practice, before their eighteenth birthday, to learn how to make smarter choices.

The big-picture goal is to give our kids enough practice handling freedom and responsibility — making choices and experiencing consequences — so that when they have to make adult decisions, with a lot higher stakes, they will make good ones.

Giving kids decision-making practice in school

We can help kids learn from real-life situations and in educational settings. A lot of education involves teachers telling kids what to do. We end up creating limiting circumstances and opportunities for growth for our kids.

And not surprisingly kids often react negatively. It becomes a vicious circle of using negative consequences to get kids to comply.

Let’s say Claudia got to work on projects in school where she had to make decisions about the research, the presentation, and which questions she would answer.

Maybe she had to lead a small group and give a presentation. Maybe she got involved in a bake sale and had to organize the event and manage the project. She would have had to make a long list of small choices to get the outcome she wanted.

When we stop overprotecting, overmanaging, and over-controlling our kids’ environment, and instead give them independence and responsibility — low-stakes decision-making — they learn to make better choices.

And eventually, they learn to make decisions that are right for them.


Whether in school or real life, when we let kids make more choices on their own and experience the results rather than demanding the controlled outcome or the one right answer, they get better at making smart choices.

It doesn’t happen overnight and not without some ‘failed choices.’

That’s the part that is tough for parents and teachers. We want our kids to get it right. We often put so many constraints on kids that they are practically forced to get it right, not because they learned how, but because we led them by the hand.

We need to get better at letting our kids make choices. Kids are capable of making very smart choices when we give them a chance.

They are capable of thinking for themselves and handling freedom and responsibility. Our kids are capable of becoming confident, competent adults who make smart decisions.

They just need practice.

This article was originally published at Medium. Republished with permission from the author.