Mom Feels Guilty about a School Decision She Made

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My sister-in-law Barbara is the mother of two girls, Beth, age 10, and Catherine, age 6. Beth attended Private School A from nursery school through grade 3, at which time she was accepted into Private School B last year; she loves her new school. (Private School A goes only through grade 6, so she would have had to made a change anyway in a couple of years, but she made friends at dance class with some girls at Private School B and decided to apply early.) Catherine stayed at Private School A last year and had a very good year.

The problem for Barbara is that having her girls in two different schools last year in different parts of the city was a scheduling and transportation nightmare, between getting the girls to their schools in the morning and to their afternoon activities and doing the pick ups.

Barbara and her husband agreed life would be easier for the family if the girls were in the same school. Catherine applied to Private School B and was accepted. Now Catherine is saying she doesn’t want to go to the new school and wants to stay in Private School A. Barbara is feeling guilty about removing Catherine from a school she really likes and is thinking about telling Catherine to try the new school and if she’s not happy there, she can go back to her old school. (Private School A said they would be happy to have her back.) Barbara’s husband thinks it would be unwise to tell Catherine she can go back to her old school if she wants to. Your thoughts?

Barbara’s situation is a good reminder of the importance of parents establishing how decision making works in their family when their children are young. There are three main modes of decision making in a family: (1) the child makes the decision; (2) the parent makes the decision; (3) the parent is open to the child’s influence, but ultimately makes the decision. Some detail on each.

There are times it is not only appropriate, but desirable, for the child to make the decision. After all, helping children  learn how to make good decisions is a major parental responsibility. When the decision is to be made by the child, the parent says, “This is your decision to make.” Of course the parent is available to offer more detail and/or provide guidance, but the intent is for the child to make the decision. Examples: “Do you want to brush your teeth before your story, or after?” “Do you want to make your bed before you have breakfast, or after?” In both examples, although they may sound trivial, there is a lot of learning about decision making going on.

For example, by stating “This is your decision to make,” it is clear to both the parent and the child that the child is responsible for the final decision within the boundaries established by the parent: your teeth will be brushed; you will make your bed. These types of decisions are typically easier for children to make because they are about tasks and sequence of events. Any attempts by the child to redefine the options, e.g., “But I don’t want to make my bed. Ever,” are quickly dealt with by simply saying, “We’re way past that. Your decision is about when you are to do it.”

Trickier decisions left to the child often arise when people are involved, e.g., “Do you want to invite Billy or Sally over to play?” “You have two birthday parties at the same time. Which one will you attend?” In these examples, the child may need the parent to help him/her figure out the various options and alternatives to get to the point where the child feels ready to make the final decision. The child may want the parent to make the decision, but the parent should resist taking on decisions that the child should be assuming.

Then there are those decisions that rightfully should be made by the parent. This category of decisions should be the easiest to deal with, but often end up the most difficult because many parents are uncomfortable with or fearful of saying no to their kids, and/or their kids have learned how to brow beat their parents into making decisions in the child’s favor. Part of the supporting language for these kinds of decisions to be made by the parent is to say, “This is non-negotiable,” or “This is my decision — it is final and I am not open to discussion or influence.” If the parent doesn’t waffle, the focus then shifts to helping the child deal with the decision that has been made on his/her behalf.

Whether the child or the parent gets to make which final decision will vary from one family to another. Let’s take the example of the ten year old who wants to go to overnight camp. In one family, the parents may totally leave that decision up to the child. Another set of parents may decree there will be no overnight camp until the child is 13 or older. And finally, other parents may say, “We’ll make the final decision, but here’s your chance to make your case.” After the child has negotiated, persuaded, and/or influenced, the parent needs to say, “Okay, I’ve heard your reasons for your position. Here’s what I’ve decided.” It is important the child understands the window for giving his/her input is closed. Otherwise, the child may persist in “making his case” and the parent feels badgered.

Back to your sister-in-law and her feeling guilty about a decision she and her husband have made. As parents, Barbara and her husband have rightfully and appropriately made the decision that Catherine will be joining her sister at Private School B next year. Decision made. Now Barbara and her husband’s discussions with Catherine need to be about: the inevitable changes that are a natural part of life; the parents sharing their experiences of how they have dealt with various changes in their lives; what might be done to help make the transition from one school to another easier for Catherine.

However, before they have this discussion with Catherine, I would suggest that Barbara, her husband and both girls sit down and review how the three different types of final decisions are made in their family, e.g., some by the kids themselves, some by the parents, and others by the parents with input from the kids. Earlier is better, but it is never too late to come together so the parents can help their children understand how decision making works in their family.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Thursday through Labor Day.

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