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Teaching Kids To Make Good Choices

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We know that the road to responsible adulthood starts in those very early, formative years, which puts significant pressure on parents to foster these skills when their kids are little. How exactly do you ease your kids into taking these steps without expecting too much or too little? When is too early? Womensforum talked to Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician Adiaha Spinks-Franklin of Texas Children's Hospital about what exactly parents should and shouldn't be doing to raise successful and responsible members of society. 

First of all, it's important to note that children have the ability to start making decisions very early on, way before their kindergarten years. Texas Children Hospital's Spinks-Franklin says that language, motor skills, and social awareness begin developing after a few months so that a child of 18 months can choose between two different objects. 

Because of this and children's natural desire to be independent and exert control over their lives, parents should start having kids make decisions as early as possible - as long as these decisions are negotiable. After all, most kids would choose not to eat their vegetables and to postpone their bedtime! 

Spinks-Franklin recommends, "Something like taking a bath is non-negotiable, but I can let them choose the timing of the bath. They're still definitely going to take a bath, but they have a little input into when it happens."

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So where is the spectrum for when kids should start picking up after themselves versus helping with the dishes? The complexity of the responsibility really depends on the development of those language, motor and social skills in the first months. 

Let’s start with language development. Kids generally are able to understand one-step commands at 12 months old. At this point, they are focused on having their basic needs met and will point to things to satisfy those needs. As basic vocabulary progresses, they start taking interest in objects outside of their basic needs. At nine months, the child understands the meaning of the word "No." By 12 months they understand the meaning of the word "Yes."

When it comes to fine motor skills, kids have the ability to start picking up small and large objects by the time they are one year old, and can throw them by the time they are two (Ah, the terrible two's!)

Spinks-Franklin recommends easing kids into the world of responsibility by having them put things back where they belong. You can help them, but try to have them do as much as possible.

"They can pick up something and put it in the trash. They can pick up their shoes and put them in the closet. They can put away their toys when they're done playing," she says.

"Children do what they see and they say what they hear. You need the parent to be the example." - Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital

 Around this time, kids also start developing socially and begin imitating their parents, which means that it becomes incumbent upon the parents to start demonstrating the responsibility they're trying to teach. In other words, you can tell them to pick up their toys and clean up after themselves, but they also have to see you pick up after yourself. 

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  •  Demonstrate the behavior you want to see. Kids are looking to please their caregivers so they will imitate what they see 
  • Start instilling responsibility early. Having them clean up after themselves is a good way to ease in.
  • Don't expect perfect results. If your kids didn't clean up all their toys, don't start with criticisms. Praise their efforts then show them again what you expect.
  • Make it automatic. If you make it clear that you expect all the toys to be cleared away every time they play, they will start doing it automatically.
  • Make chores fun. Depending on their abilities, have your kids help with dinner or folding clothes and make it a fun bonding experience! 
  • Teach consequences. Make it clear that if their responsibilities are not met, your kids won't be able to watch their favorite shows or play on the iPad. Stay consistent. 

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By the time children are in school (around five years of age), they should know the steps to getting dressed in the morning, they can help with making lunch and choosing what goes into their lunch, and they can help with making their bed.

The most important thing that parents can do to foster responsibility is to give their kids a chance to do something themselves - which is hard to do in practice. 

"They are always dressing their child, always bathing their child, always doing everything – either because they’re in a hurry or they don’t know if the child can do it. Sometimes you’ve just got to give that kid a chance," says Spinks-Franklin.

She recommends picking a day that’s not as busy, like a Saturday or a Sunday or a school holiday. See if the kids can dress themselves. See if they can remember to brush their teeth or if they want to help with lunch. Stop for a moment and give them the opportunity to learn these skills.

Overall, with good choices and instructions by you, your children can learn to make good choices themselves at a young age and continuing do so long into adulthood. 

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