When Does My Kid Get to Make His Own Decisions?: Ask Harry & Louise

Our husband-and-wife team advises a mother wondering when to stand her ground and when to give in to her child’s requests.

By: Harry Jaffe, Louise Jaffe

Dear Harry and Louise:

My son is about to turn 11, and up until now, he has been pretty receptive about doing all of the activities I have “suggested.” One of them is swim club, which he has done for the past three years. He gets a very good workout twice a week and leaves happy, and I observe him having fun while swimming . He’s not very interested in sports, does not participate in any other athletic activity, and I know he needs this workout for all the obvious mental and physical health benefits. In the past year, he has started complaining about swimming and does not want to go, yet he finishes swimming in a good mood, and I can see the benefits of the exercise regime in his overall well-being.

Recently, he has asked me, “When do I get to start making my own decisions?” One of his main sticking points is swimming. I have told him he has to do swim club until eighth grade (he’s in fourth grade); my rationale is that after eighth grade he will be in a school that has a better after-school sports program. At his current school, athletics are very weak—PE is just once a week. It hasn’t turned into a huge battle yet, and he still goes to swim club without too much of a fuss, but he complains almost every time.

Do I hold the line and keep him in swimming until eighth grade? My gut instinct is yes—he needs the exercise and will not get it otherwise (I don’t see possibilities for another sport for him within our community). Or do I need to let him make his own choice about this?

Indecisive Mother

• • •

LOUISE SAYS:

Your gut instinct is exactly right on this one. Stick to your guns and establish that swim team will be a given until the eighth grade. Your gut is telling you it’s the right decision because you realize your son needs 1) a physical activity, and swimming is a healthy one; and 2) an activity that is a regular part of his life, which helps establish his identity, observable in this case by his happiness after each practice. Your doubt is kicking in because now you have to be the heavy and enforce your expectation. You became the enforcer once your son began to complain.

The complaints will likely continue as he looks around and contemplates that he may want to sleep in, or play video games, or sit around and do nothing like some of his friends. Remain clear and unemotional as you listen to the complaints while driving to swim practice.

My answer would very different if you were forcing your son into an activity that brought him physical or psychological discomfort—for example, if you were forcing him to go to football practice to be tackled by bigger boys five days a week even though he never expressed an interest in the sport. Complaining on the way to swim practice is not a sign of psychological discomfort; it’s merely a child taking out his frustration on Mom because he can.

We all have those activities that give us more pleasure when they are complete than while we’re engaged in the task. These tasks are still necessary and often yield significant rewards. Your son is lucky to have a supportive mom who is creating an environment that is helping him test his abilities and determine his strengths.

Now let’s sweeten the pot for him. You have chosen swim team, which he agreed to at an earlier age. Now let him choose an activity that you will support. As long as his activity is not dangerous and won’t break the bank, then let him have his thing. Be prepared for his choice activity to be something you don’t “get” but are still willing to support. I heard an interview with Michelle Obama in which she talked about raising responsible girls. She is very clear with her kids that there will be one activity each season that they must do and one activity they can choose.

By using the First Lady’s model, your son will develop the responsible habit of pursuing a healthy activity while appreciating that his voice is heard and respected.

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• • •

HARRY SAYS:

No so indecisive. You seem to be handling the first question well; standing firm and making your son stick with his swim team will have benefits for him, both physically and emotionally, far into the future. But that’s the easy one. When to allow a child to make his or her own decisions is a far tougher call.

We want to raise our children to be independent, right? But not so independent that they vacate the house all weekend. We want them to think for themselves, but not when they think they can take the car for a whirl when they’re 15. We hope they decide not to wear flip-flops on a snowy day, though many do.

So how do we strike a balance? Very slowly, with close observation and conversation. Reward good decisions; talk through bad ones. Be consistent. Establishing this kind of rapport when your son is 11 will build trust, make him smarter about choices, and make it easier to loosen the strings as he gets older.

The key word is trust. Establish it early. Letting go, when it comes time to do so, will be easier for all.

• • •

LOUISE SAYS:

Trust will also be established as a child grows up knowing Mom and Dad are on his side, even when they decide that he will participate in activities about which he complains.

HARRY SAYS:

Ah, that means showing up at swim meets and piano recitals. Must we? But of course.

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