The Catholic Church promotes her children’s free will and affirms it as a necessary good, something essential to their very ability to love God. She therefore leaves as many choices open to her children as possible, while forming their conscience so that they will know how to choose wisely. Giving her children choices means taking the risk that they will sometimes make the wrong choice, or the unwise choice. However, without the choice available to them she cannot take pride in the times that they were confronted with the wrong choice and made the right one instead.
Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person and not properly of a group or community. This individual may be conditioned, incited and influenced by numerous and powerful external factors. He may also be subjected to tendencies, defects and habits linked with his personal condition. In not a few cases such external and internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the person’s freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt. But it is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free! - Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Reconciliation and Penance), by Pope John Paul II, paragraph 16
There is a risk to giving our children choices. The risk is that they might not do what we want them to do, or that they might choose a path other than the one we would prefer they walk. They might make mistakes. They might get hurt. However, if we do not give them room to make choices we also are not giving them room to prove themselves as capable and trustworthy.
When we give our children choices, we must be prepared for them to make the wrong choices and we must ensure that we do not excuse them for the damage caused when they make those choices no matter how bad it may be. They may be influenced by friends, siblings, teachers, or other trusted individuals into making that wrong choice, but it is still theirs to make and therefore they are still accountable.
The choices we give to a young child are not going to be the same choices we give to an adult child. Young children are not ready for that level of responsibility, and the younger the child the fewer the choices need to be. For example, it is okay to pick out two outfits for your four year old and tell them they may choose which one of the two they will wear. This reduces what can otherwise be a very stressful morning battle while still giving them options. Giving children choices shows them that you trust them to make good decisions and allows them to express themselves.
Giving children choices also empowers them, showing them that they do have at least some control over their lives and encourages them to take responsibility for the power those choices represent. Giving our children choices does mean we have less control over their lives. This can be nerve-wracking at times, but the benefit of giving our children choices is that eventually we do not have to spend so much of our times managing their lives and can get back to managing our own.
Choices about FriendsOne of the places parents often struggle most with giving their children choices is in the friends that they make. We teach our children to love everyone around them, to be kind and gentle, but then when they make a friend that we don’t approve of we want to close the door on that friendship and tell our children they can’t play with THAT kid anymore. This strategy often backfires, however, and ends up with your child defending that friendship to the death because they see your demands as attacking their decision making skills rather than as an effort to protect them from harm.
When I was in 6th grade, I made friends with another girl that lived in my neighborhood. I didn’t have any friends at the time and so my mom was delighted to see me making friends. However, as she got to know the girl she felt that the girl was not a good influence on me (she was right) and that the friendship should end. The more that my mom tried to push us apart, however, the closer I clung to that friend. It wasn’t until my mom stopped pushing me that I was able to relax and examine the relationship more objectively. I eventually ended the friendship on my own because I saw that this girl did not have my best interests at heart.
I faced a similar situation with my son when he was in 5th grade. He’d made friends with a little boy in his class. I was glad my son had a friend, but when I got to know the boy I found him rude, bossy, and controlling. I HATED this kid. However, I remembered what had happened with my own mother when I was in 6th grade and I said nothing. My son and he stopped being friends just a few weeks later.
Six months later, however, their class went on a camping trip. The two boys ended up being cabin mates and came back home best buddies. I was glad that I hadn't tried to get between them earlier, because that boy had done a lot of growing up in their six months apart. 6 years later, he’s like a second son to me and he’s been my son’s best friend through every hardship he’s faced.
As I have grown in my faith, I have learned to trust my son’s judgment. When I don’t like the person he’s with or am not sure about them, though, I pick up praying for that child. What I have seen happen is that those prayers transform the child I’m praying over and the relationship inevitably breaks up or becomes healthier. God protects my son when I can’t.
Choices about PartnersMy son has now reached dating age, and this is another stage where we often find it difficult to let our children make their own choices. My mother certainly did. She fought with me over my then boyfriend every chance she got. She didn't like him, didn't like the way I acted when I was around him, and saw nothing good in him. To be perfectly honest, if I hadn't been so busy fighting to defend my choice of a partner I might have seen more of what she was talking about and broken up with him. However, because she did fight me all I did was spend my time defending him. I certainly didn't feel comfortable talking to her about the problems I was facing or my struggles in that relationship.
I ended up marrying that boyfriend, and I’m not sorry that I did. However, had my mother not have fought me so hard I might have waited longer or addressed some serious relationship issues we both had a lot sooner. I've taken a completely different approach with my son, one that has worked well. He picks them, and I teach him how to love them better. I pray for the both of them, and I offer advice as he comes to me. As with his friendships, relationships that aren't meant to be end quickly but without the damage done to our relationship that might be done if I tried harder to control who he dated.
Choices are an essential part of teaching our children to think for themselves, to anticipate and avoid unpleasant consequences, and to take responsibility for themselves. I hope you have enjoyed this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just joining us, you can find the introduction and earlier chapters by following the link above. I hope you will join us tomorrow for Chapter 26: Welcome the Stranger.
If you want to share your stories about letting your children make choices, want to comment, or have a thought about how this chapter could be improved please leave a comment below and let us know!