When your children are infants, things are complicated and difficult... but they're also pretty simple. While they can show preference, they can't really make a choice. So we get used to making all their decisions for them, and that power can make things decidedly easier. As they get older and begin to form their own identities and pesky opinions it can be difficult to let go of that control, because you know better than they do and you're just used to the flow of calling all the shots. But raising an independent child is important, so you better believe there are things I let my kids decide for themselves. It's hard, but you have to start letting them spread their little wings sometime.
My whole life, I've teetered in this weird limbo between being laid back and being a complete control freak. The result has not been a happy medium, but this weird, irrational collection of some things I'm very chill about and other things I have zero chill about. (Go ahead and ask my husband what happens when I feel the house is "cluttered.")
So parenting has been this weird balancing act of necessarily channeling my inner control freak (it's the only way to keep things flowing smoothly) and letting some things go. I'm a work in progress, but I like to remind myself that my children aren't items on a checklist or little miniature clones of yours truly I have to present to the world. They're their own people who have to learn not only how to be a human, but how to be themselves, and they won't be able to do either of those things if I insist on making all their decisions for them.
So here are some low-risk decisions I leave to them:
Today, my daughter is wearing a beach shirt with a shark on it, a pair of spiderweb patterned pants, a pink sparkly skirt, an enormous rainbow bow, and Batman flip flops. Does this go together? No. No it does not. Is it seasonally appropriate? Nope. Not even a little bit. Will people think I didn't do laundry and threw together whatever was left in the bottom of her drawers? Quite possibly.
But this is just her, you guys. Her style is eclectic and weird and I'm just going to let her roll with it because it makes her happy and allows her freedom of expression and the sense of having a say in how she presents herself to the world. As long as she's warm or cool enough, comfortable, safe, and able to move freely then there's no reason to dictate what she has to wear.
My son goes months and months without haircuts, simply because he doesn't feel like it. (Recently he's been more inclined to get a trim if his hair gets in his eyes.) One time my daughter went from hair down to her butt to a bob in a single day. Learning the lesson that "hair grows back" was a hard one for me to learn personally — I put a lot of emotional baggage into my hair and I don't want that for my kids. So I feel like giving them control over what happens on their heads from day one is a positive step in that direction. I draw the line, at this age, at anything that can permanently damage hair, like some dyes and color treatments, but otherwise? Keep it tangle-free (or let me help you keep it tangle-free) and do what you want.
Who They Hug
My children, no children, owe anyone access to their bodies. They get to say how, when, and to whom they give physical affection, and I'll defend their right to say "no" every time. That doesn't mean I won't encourage hugs among loved ones or anything, but if they're not feeling it then I've got their back and will never force them.
How They Greet People
Just because I don't make them hug people doesn't mean I'm OK with raising rude kids. I'm from New England, people, and manners are king! So they have to greet people, but they get to choose how they're going to do it. Bare minimum is a "hello" and eye contact. A handshake, high five, or fist bump is also acceptable. (My son, hilariously, tried for a while to get handshakes going among his peer group. It didn't work out, but I was impressed by the effort and desire for formality.)
What Playground Challenges They're Ready For
Different parents have different approaches to this and that's fine, because they know their kids. For me, I never really held my kids back from climbing high jungle gyms or going down tall slides or experimenting with monkey bars or anything like that. I was always ready to catch them — like, literally catch them — but I didn't want to stifle their sense of curiosity and I wanted them to learn their limits organically while being encouraged in the knowledge that I didn't see anything wrong with them trying, which I hoped encouraged the idea that I believed that, with effort, they could do what they were trying to do.
Whether They Eat
Again, if your kid has specific issues with weight gain or nutrition or something, that's one thing. Mine don't and, as such, "The Clean Your Plate Club" is not a thing in my house. If they tell me they're not hungry then I assume they, the actual owners of their stomachs, are better informed than I am. I also know for a fact that they will not starve themselves because, trust me, eventually they'll always eat.
(The only regular exception to this rule is that I always basically insist on breakfast on a school day, because they won't have access to food until lunchtime and I don't want them to be hungry, because I know they'll get hungry before then.)
What They Eat
Look, it's not like my kids are fed a steady diet of licorice and chocolate bon bons or anything. They don't get ice cream for lunch. But I'm going to present them with healthy options (and the occasional treat) and let them choose from there. They're always going to be offered a variety of foods and encouraged to try new things, but I don't make them eat anything they don't want to.
(And you know what? It's paying off now, guys. My 7-year-old asked me if I would make him kale to try. Kale. It's a long road but I'm seeing some landmarks that let me know I'm heading in the right direction.)
Who They're Friends With
I encourage them to include everyone in their play — and results have been good — but if they're just not feeling a kid we'll talk about why and all that but I'm not going to make them be friends with someone. I mean, there are some people I do not care for and if someone forced me to hang out with them I'd be pretty pissed.
What Activities They Want To Do
Michelle Obama famously made her daughters do two sports — one they chose and one she chose — and made them see it through. Her reasoning, which I get and respect, was to get them out of their comfort zone and learn new skills, including being part of a team.
For this and many other reasons, I am not Michelle Obama. Maybe I'll feel differently as they get older, but at the moment they're still in grade school and I feel like this is about finding out what their interests are and experimenting and I'm very happy to follow their lead.
Whether They Need A Jacket
This is actually a parenting hill I will die on: they know if they're cold, and if they are they'll put on the damn jacket. I make them take it if I think it's going to be chilly, but I'm not going to make them wear it because no child ever died of a chill, despite what Victorian novels would have us believe.
Things I Know Will Not Go Well For Them
Of course I don't want my children to struggle and suffer, but I think struggle without suffering is actually tremendously beneficial to everyone, including (and perhaps especially) children. I want them to make mistakes so they can learn from them. I want them to have the satisfaction of learning what's best for them on their own, without my interfering. I don't want them to fail, but I want them to see what works by finding out what doesn't.