When Can A Child Make Their Own Decisions?

When can a child make their own decisions

The innate element of human nature to pursue our vision has lead to amazing progress and societal advancement. Parents help children learn how to follow that instinct, but they are sometimes unsure of when to loosen the reigns.

When is a child ready to make their own decisions? A child is ready to make their own decisions at 18 years old in most states, from a legal perspective. Developmentally, a parent should let their child make age-appropriate decisions as they demonstrate capacity, judgment, and maturity. Doing so will leverage the power of responsibility to ensure the healthy development of the child.

The need to pursue independence begins the moment your child is born. You can see their desire to reshape the world around them before they have the ability to carry it out.

The key here is to understand the distinction between the legal element and the developmental.

Legally, you are responsible for your child until they are 18 years old. You need to make sure you are aware of what they are doing because you are legally liable for their well-being and their actions.

Developmentally, it’s best to embrace a gradual release model where you allow them to take on more age-appropriate responsibility over time as they demonstrate their readiness to you.

Legally

Although I am not a lawyer, from what I understand and have come to know about a parent’s responsibility to their child, the parent is the caretaker until the child reaches 18 years of age.

This is not legal advice, but I believe that means it is your job to make sure they stay out of trouble and do the right thing until they reach the legal adult age.

If you want to know more about the legal part of this question, you should consult a lawyer.

Developmentally

Responsibility does not sprout out of children overnight. Your child will learn it over time.

According to the research, the sooner this happens the better. In fact, entire pedagogical systems have been developed around this concept.

Maria Montessori developed the Montessori method with the needs of the child in mind.

Her method was built around the idea of a child’s need to explore and experiment with the world around them.

Under this model, as they learn more about the world and demonstrate they can make better decisions, more responsibility is released to them.

Once they learn a new task, they continue to complete that task as they take on new ones.

For example, with small children, this means cleaning up their workspaces every day.

As they take on new responsibilities like sweeping the floor, they still must clean up their workspace as well.

By learning new tasks that are relevant to their daily experience the child develops a respect for the environment around them through the act of caring for it, building a natural sense of duty to the world around them.

The child who engages in this daily practice is aware that they will have to clean up any mess they make, yet they still choose to take out new toys and try new things because their innate desire to explore is being met.

In tandem, they are growing their ability to care for their environment.

Over time these small steps toward responsibility teach them to make better thought out decisions and consider how their actions impact the world around them and the people in it.

Reasons to Allow a Child to Make Their Own Decisions

Benefits abound for empowering your child to make their own decisions.

As parents, it is our job to help our children grow into productive and responsible members of society. They will not do so overnight.

They are learning every moment of every day and the opportunities are everywhere to point them in the right direction.

Understanding the benefits of empowering your kids to take on more should help you as you give your child more freedom in an age-appropriate manner.

They Learn How to Express Themselves

By allowing your child to make their own decisions you are helping them learn to express themselves, setting the conditions for them to thrive in the environment around them.

Over time, they will begin to figure out how they fit into that environment. Through both their actions and their words, they will express to you how they think they fit in and what they want to do to try to change their world.

Your involvement with them in this process will reinforce their belief in themselves as they figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Your guidance will serve as their compass. They will come to you for advice and if necessary you will offer it even they don’t ask.

The comfort you provide as they try new things will help them feel secure in themselves, especially when they are unsure.

Through trial and error, they will learn how to bring their ideas to life.

They Learn to Believe in Themselves

Making decisions is a confidence builder. As an individual continues to make good choices they grow their skillset and belief that they are up for the task at hand.

For children, the effects are even more powerful. From birth, they have a desire to impact the world around them.

As they age and make choices for themselves they learn they really can impact their world.

Feelings of uncertainty will be reduced as your child starts to believe in themselves.

They will begin to make the connection between imagination and reality. As they do they become open to more experimentation, leading to stronger developmental gains as they face more difficult challenges.

The security they feel from knowing they have their parent(s) in their corner gives them a stronger foundation to continue down their growth path.

They Learn How to Make Good Decisions

By practicing the art of decision making your child will get better at it over time. Their progression will not be a straight line upward, but you will see growth.

Each decision they make offers you the opportunity to bond with them and be their guide.

If you take advantage of the situation you could put yourself in a strong position to facilitate their personal development and solidify your relationship together.

Think about what you want your relationship to be with your child when they are an adult.

There is a potential direct line between that vision and teaching them to make good decisions now.

If you serve as their helpful guide, work with them to build their independence, and put their best interests first in all the ways that you help them, your child will notice.

As an adult, they will become the well adjusted and productive member of society you want them to be and they will be far more likely to demonstrate the gratitude to you that you deserve.

They Learn That Their Contributions Are Important

Children sometimes struggle to make the connection between actions and consequences.

As a parent, it’s not easy to watch. You want them to understand how they impact the world around them and be aware of the consequences of their choices.

For many, this will take quite some time to develop. Don’t despair. It’s worth the time you spend supporting your child.

As the child builds their capacity to appreciate the impact of their actions, they will also start to realize how so many things in life are interconnected.

You will be there to explain the deeper meaning and help them respect others so they begin to comprehend the repercussions of their actions.

They Learn to Own the Responsibility that Comes Along with Their Ideas

When a child makes their own decisions they tend to see the positive side of the proposition.

The parent, on the other hand, tends to worry about the price to be paid if something goes wrong.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

As your child learns from both sides of the coin, they will begin to see that their ideas can have both foreseen and unforeseen consequences.

You can influence them before or after they make a choice. Before they make a decision, you have the luxury of being able to get to them before they make a mistake.

Together, both of you can think through the many possibilities that can go either right or wrong.

Then, you can guide them to the best choice – or at least show them the best options they have in front of them.

Working with them before they make a decision will not always be an option.

Accept that after is way better than not at all. Sometimes it may be more impactful because your child could be in a position where they have to deal with the consequences of their actions.

Try not to use language that sounds like “I told you so” or “You don’t listen”.

Instead, recognize the chance to help them reflect on the event and identify the options they had available to them that they did not choose.

By helping the go through their progressions, they can develop a rhythm for decision making that will be there with them when you are not.

Undoubtedly they will have to take their lumps at times. If they have you there to guide them through it, they will be more likely to learn the meaningful lessons necessary for personal growth.

They Learn a Little Bit More About Who They Are

If you believe, as I do, that your thoughts become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your character, and your character becomes who you are then you probably already see the great benefits of allowing your child to make their own decisions.

Each time they make a choice they have the potential to forge a new path in the world and in their minds.

The neural pathways that are being established in their brains are powerful in molding the adult they will eventually become.

All stimuli play some role in the maturation process. As their guide sometimes the best thing you can do for them is to listen.

Let them open up and share their thoughts on the decision and its outcome. Hear what they have to say after making a good or bad decision.

Teach them how to leave yesterday in the past, be present today, and move toward who they want to become tomorrow.

Importantly, model for them the importance of owning your decisions and using the lessons learned to manufacture better outcomes in the future.

They Experience the Joy of Autonomy

It’s a fantastic feeling to be able to do things for yourself.

The sooner you give this gift to your child the sooner they will begin to develop the critical life skills that come along with figuring things out for yourself.

Think about everything that goes into making a decision. It’s not just the decision itself that is important.

It’s the steps that go into making the decision that shapes the child’s thought process and judgment.

Each time your child makes a decision they have the chance to consider the best choices available to them.

With you as their guide, hopefully, they will consider the prudent choice more often than not.

As they continue to engage in the pattern of critical thinking that you have taught them they will get better at it.

It won’t happen overnight and won’t all be forward progress, but over time it will progress.

Stay with them and watch the joy and pride that develops in your child when they realize they can do it for themselves and be great.

They Practice a Basic Life Skill

Highly effective adults know how to make choices based on their needs, desires, and the circumstances of their environment.

Allowing your child to practice making their own decisions in a controlled setting with their parent as their guide is much safer for them than if they have to learn on their own later in life because so much was decided for them in the home where they grew up.

It is also much more beneficial to their emotional development.

As a general rule, the younger a child is the more malleable their brains are.

Children who are given the opportunity to make decisions early develop a deeper sense of how to carry out their vision for turning their ideas into reality.

They become better at experimenting with variables and understanding how their actions impact others.

They learn how to explain what they want and the reasons why. Each of these benefits is linked to more positive relationships greater professional success as an adult.

They Become Closer to Their Parents

As I discussed each of the above benefits I mentioned to you, the parent in each one.

You are an integral part of how your child grows up and who they grow up to be.

If you can be strong enough to manage that huge responsibility with patience, grace, and kindness your relationship with your child will benefit from the memories and trust built over the years.

When to Let a Child Make Their Own Decisions

Now that you know some of the reasons for letting your child make their own decisions we can take a look at some of the signs to look for so you know they are ready to make choices on their own.

The main markers to use to determine when a child is ready to make well thought out decisions are capacity, judgment, and maturity.

Capacity

Capacity is known to mean the ability to make your own decisions. A child who has the capacity to make their own decisions can:

  • Understand the information presented to them about the situation
  • Retain that information throughout the decision-making process
  • Use that information to weigh the pro’s and con’s
  • Effectively communicate their decision and defend their reasoning

Judgment

You can help your child develop good judgment by giving them opportunities to practice making age-appropriate decisions.

Be really clear about what they are allowed to make decisions about and what they are not.

You are the parent and you are in charge. It is their duty to listen to you and follow your guidance so they can benefit from the wisdom you have to share.

As they make decisions create a feedback loop with your child where so you can reflect together on the decision and its outcome.

While engaged together, share the process by which you make decisions. Teach them about consider all possibilities and work with them to become comfortable with the fluid nature of decision making.

Maturity

There is no direct path to developing maturity. Part of the maturation process for your child will be to make decisions and learn from them.

Part of your job will be to constantly assess whether they understand the circumstances of the situation they are in. This is easier said than done.

Kids are often able to talk through a situation before they are able to deal with it on their own.

Using a gradual release approach will give them the freedom they need to demonstrate maturity while keeping you close enough to step in if needed. Remember, you are the parent. They need you more than anyone else.

Bringing it Together

There are many factors that go into assessing whether your child is ready to make their own decisions.

I focused on what I consider to be the big three to keep the focus on the big picture.

If you are able to guide your child as they build their capacity, judgment, and maturity you will be well on your way to providing them the benefits associated with learning and doing for themselves.

If you are able to establish yourself as a trusted confidant along the way, you will be setting the groundwork for a mutually rewarding lifetime relationship.

Related Questions

How Do You Help a Child Make Age Appropriate Decisions?

If you are getting started or trying to start fresh with your child as you help them work on their decision-making ability, goal-setting can be a great strategy to develop their capacity.

Kids thrive when they are learning new things.

What’s best, if they like what they are doing they don’t realize they are working.

Have them set a goal for themselves that is very achievable for their age.

Then, provide them the support they need to reach their goal. In the process, you will be building your relationship with them as well as their confidence in themselves.

Why is it Important to Give Kids Choices?

It is important to give kids choices because it helps them develop critical thinking and decision making skills.

It also helps them grow their confidence and understanding of the impact of their decisions.

They benefit from having their parents present to teach them how to make effective decisions.

In the process, they become familiar with assessing the many possible choices available to them and the shifting nature some situations have.

Over time they become more comfortable with the process of making a decision and better at explaining their reasoning for making a given choice.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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