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Child-rearing means choosing

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My daughter recently celebrated her fourth birthday, and hosting it "off-campus" meant I ended up taking five little ones to a busy children's theme restaurant. When the waiter arrived — looking rather nervous, I thought — to begin querying each child about her lunch preference, I simply informed him, without consulting the kids myself, that my charges would each have a grilled cheese sandwich and a Sprite. (Note for the record: My kids rarely get sodas instead of milk.)

Anyway, the waiter was stunned and thankful — and I guess it's obvious why. Today, giving children choices in every conceivable matter — often, it seems for little more than the sake of giving them choices — seems to be the Holy Grail of child-rearing. So for me to assert my parental prerogative and make choices for these children was, apparently, totally unexpected.

Being a mother of three , I see it all the time, with even the youngest kids. "Sweetie, please pick something — doesn't a hot dog look good? No? How about a hamburger?" "Honey, I'll let you decide, but if you have a nap, you'll feel much better for tonight's party." And my all-time favorite, "Well, you can keep fussing if you like — it's your choice — but if you don't stop, I'm going to leave without you"/"not bring you back"/fill-in-the blank.

Sure it's appropriate and necessary as children mature to let them take on more responsibility, including making certain choices for themselves within the purview of their parents' authority. (When allowing a choice is called for, limiting it to one of two things is wise.) But today's culture seems to say that even the youngest children should be given choices primarily so they can be personally empowered — not so that they can learn to make good, sound, decisions, considering the whole context, for themselves and others. And what a world of difference there is between the two.

A very wise woman and mom I know once said to me, "Children do not learn to make good choices by making choices. They learn to make good choices by having good choices made for them." In other words, it's after watching wise decisions be made on their behalf, and, when appropriate, having those decisions explained — not justified — that children are best equipped to navigate that process themselves.

That means kids should be allowed to make choices only within the safe context of parental authority and only when (but by no means always when) they have gained the breadth of knowledge they need to intelligently make the choice at hand. And just as important, when they can rightly see the consequences of that choice for others, not just themselves. So consider something as simple as ordering in a restaurant. Maybe choosing a hot dog instead of a grilled cheese is a fine decision for a certain age child and one she can be allowed to make — but not if she's one of a group of children who, all ruminating about their choices, would unnecessarily inconvenience a busy waiter.

But perhaps the biggest problem with constantly offering a child what seem like even innocuous choices may be the one so clearly yet unwittingly portrayed on a television program I saw on child-rearing. A toddler was chronicled terrorizing his parents about the issue of bedtime. The "expert" counselor told the distraught parents it was important to give the little guy choices throughout the day, but that as bedtime approached they should begin to limit his decisionmaking, so he wouldn't think he could make choices about important things like bedtime, too.

But of course, a child who is given even benign choices all day long will rebel when that prerogative is suddenly reined in. Duh.

Such parents should beware. They are only training their child to exercise his selfish whims, instead of training him over time to make wise decisions considering the entire context for both himself and others, and within his parents' authority. And if they feel challenged now — just wait until he is teenager.

Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at: hart@aol.com.