Gradually turning your children's decision-making over to them is scary. The best thing we can do for them is to teach them that their choices aren't always free and may carry some long-term repercussions.
As parents, we are faced with the knowledge that we have to teach our children to make wise decisions, and then eventually turn those responsibilities over to them. But sending them out without the understanding that some decisions affect a whole lifetime and others around them is dangerous.
Once in my gym class, the coach stood us slightly apart and had us swing our arms around. He explained that being among people we would more than likely hit someone. He was trying to explain that while we had the freedom to choose to swing our arms, we had to consider the effects of doing so on those around us.
As our children get older, they want to make more choices for themselves. They will more than likely want to experiment with "grown-up" things like smoking, drinking, sex, profanity, credit card debt and the like. From their age, these things look adult because they see adults doing them. As parents, we may see them differently because we know the repercussions.
They want to be free to choose. But if they light up and smoke that first cigarette, they are putting themselves in danger of losing their freedom to not smoke. They need to understand that they may soon become a slave to that very expensive pack of cigarettes. And, in the process, lose the ability to abstain, lose a lot of money every week, lose good health, break the hearts of loved ones if they get sick, and adversely affect the health of anyone within smoking distance of them. If they continue, they may do harm to their spouse or children who don't smoke. They may lose more days at work than most due to illness. They may die prematurely. So exercising their freedom to make the choice to smoke may cost them dearly in the long run.
Many teenagers lose a lot of freedom by choosing to have sex before they are ready. They may contract a high-maintenance disease such as herpes, which stays with them forever, or worse, HIV. They may become pregnant and lose the freedom of going out with friends to dances and on dates or the freedom to finish their education because they now have another life to care for and provide.
The same goes for other choices they may think are free. Every single decision they make carries with it consequences. But the reverse can be true, as well. That's why we have to educate them. Choosing to wait for sex, to complete their education, to not smoke or drink all have positive consequences.
So how do we talk to them about their freedom of choice?
Start when your children are young. Let them make decisions about what to wear or what to eat by giving them options to choose from. Hold up two outfits and let them select. Give them three veggies with dinner and let them choose two of them. Then discuss why they made those choices, so they begin to think things through for themselves.
Teach delayed gratification
Tell your children they can have one cookie now or two cookies if they wait 10 minutes. Let them choose and live with the consequences. Suggest that they save their allowance for something big that they want. Tell them that if they save diligently, you will add to their savings so that they get it sooner. Then teach them about money and credit and how much freedom they will lose by getting into debt.
Use life as a springboard for discussion
When you see a young teenage mother walking her baby, use that as an opportunity to ask your kids things like, "How do you think she feels about her decision? Do you think she struggles? Do you think that she gets help from the baby's father?" When you see someone smoking, ask, "What do you think he spends on cigarettes in a week? Do you think he wishes he hadn't started?" Keep dialogues open by asking questions without accusation and without preachiness. Listen to their answers and leave it at that. Get them thinking about these choices.
Don't use control or manipulation
These often drive children into making decisions that are harmful. Total control leads to rebellion. Give them as many choices as you can based on their age and maturity.
Allow them to suffer the consequences
If they are careless and wreck the car, they don't drive. If they stay out too late, it doesn't give them the right to sleep all day. Don't compound their bad choices with the absence of consequences. Let them feel the sting of their decisions without you ridiculing or belittling them.
Show unconditional love
Let them know that you will love them no matter what they do but that you may detest their decisions. You don't have to condone bad behavior, but you must continue to love and support them emotionally.
Freedom isn't always free. Even the smallest choices can have long-term effects. Arm your children with knowledge and power by teaching them these things and allowing them to endure natural consequences.