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Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2004 / 5 Shevat, 5764

Betsy Hart

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Consumer Reports

Limiting children's choices | At next year's fun fair at my children's elementary school, I'm going to be in charge of the Sno-Cone machine.

That's because of what happened when I recently volunteered at the fair and ended up as only the "assistant" Sno-Cone maker. I was paired with a loving mom — who enslaved all of us to the culture's commitment to "always giving children choices."

My job was to scoop the ice shavings into the cone, after which she put on the flavored syrup. As the children started to gather, she took orders for "red, yellow, blue, green, and purple stripes, please," "I'd like um. . .cherry, purple, no, wait, green and um. . okay, and orange and could you please put those in great big dots on the cone? No!! don't let them overlap — can I have another one?"

Now, this might have been just grand except for one thing: While mom perfected the color arrangements on the cones per each child's exacting and totally gratuitous choices, the line grew to five kids, then 15, 20, 25 and finally more than 30 children waiting for almost 20 minutes to get the "perfect" Sno-Cone. Meanwhile, most of the kids had little real preference. They were just having fun playing with the colors. That, too, might have been fine — if they weren't keeping their classmates, and themselves, from being held up for so long and so missing much of the fun fair.

Given that we didn't have more helping hands, I suggested that in order to move things along, we should let the children pick only one color. Or better yet, until the line was down, simply decide that "we're serving grape cones at the moment, come back in five minutes and it will be lime," after that cherry, and so on.

We could have gotten the line down to nothing and satisfied every child quickly.

But the head Sno-Cone mom was adamant. "Let the children choose" she insisted. "That's what makes it fun."

Fun — for whom? A bunch of antsy kids who have to wait in an unnecessarily long line to get some "perfectly" striped Sno-Cone, the flavor of which doesn't matter to them in the first place? Let's face it — if we were only serving cherry Sno-Cones, the kids would have been thrilled with cherry Sno-Cones.

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This dear mom apparently believed in grabbing the golden ring of American child raising: Kids should always, always, be allowed choices. From parenting guru Dr. Sears, to Parenting Magazine, to the authors of the best-selling "What to Expect" books, these experts say giving children choices as much as possible gives children a sense of empowerment, raises their all important self-esteem and teaches them how to make good choices.

Only, kids can't be allowed to make choices when it's totally dangerous or completely inappropriate, of course.

There's actually some good thinking there — there's just no principle to make sense of what at first glance are conflicting notions.

Here's why: It used to be that we understood that children, by definition without the wisdom that comes only through experience, are born under their parents loving authority. At times, their parents may well give them the privilege of making a choice, but it's always under their parents' wise purview.

But no more. We've completely flipped that principle around. Today, making choices is seen as the inherently wise child's "right." When Mom and Dad must step in and choose differently, and all the experts agree that's sometimes the case, it's only as a last resort.

So the child is not only used to making choices all day long. More importantly, he sees them as his "right" to make. Which cereal to eat, which shirt to wear, which activity to do, which friends to play with — so it's no wonder he then thinks, "What do you mean I can't choose my bedtime," or later, "which computer Web sites to visit" or even, "whether or not to obey you?"

But, as one experienced mom who gets it right said to me, "children don't learn to make good choices by making choices — they learn to make good choices by having good choices made on their behalf." And, of course, when appropriate having those choices explained. As in, "No honey, we can't let each child dictate his 'perfect' five-stripe Sno-Cone, because that's inconsiderate to all the other children. And when our choice negatively affects other people, sometimes we don't get to make that choice."

Next year there will be no line at the school fair Sno-Cone machine. I guarantee it.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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