Oh Agency…I can’t decide!

The weekend before last my children where swimming in the pool. I warned them that it was getting close to the time of their favourite weekend television program. (Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon)
Usually, if they miss this particular program, there are sad faces everywhere I turn so, I reminded them it was on. My eldest said that she would prefer to stay in the pool. 2nd child said she wanted to watch the show. I said it was their choice, I didn’t mind (I would prefer them outside in the pool, but that was my choice!). Then I asked 3rd child which he would like to do?
He immediately began to cry. Really cry. “I want to stay in the pool and I want to watch ______”. I said he needed to make a choice (which didn’t help as he cried more!) and it would need to be soon because if he didn’t get out of the pool, he would miss the program (oh no, a pressure- filled, time sensitive decision).
Through his tears he finally decided to choose the pool but was still not happy (more tears) when he found out the program was nearly finished when he got out about 15 mins later. My 5yr old could not make a choice.
This incident started me thinking about choices and decisions or (jargon alert) AGENCY in children’s lives. How much practice do they really get at making choices that effect their world?
I believe that, like all people, there are things that children have no choice about and things that can be opened up to choice.
For example, a child should not eat ice-cream for dinner every night or ride their trike in the middle of the road. Many children would choose these things, but we, adults, are here to guide healthy and safe agency.
However, there are many things that children can make choices about that will empower them and prepare them for the much bigger choices they will need to make in the future.
What they dress in, how they wear their hair, the after care or school activities they do can be by choice. These choices can be supported and guided through discussion and weighing up options, educating them about using tools like pros and cons lists, features and benefits, important factors to consider and even intuition; that “gut feeling” that needs to be listened to.
But how many children get choice at all?
I keep hearing about our busy lives. Life seems to be lived at a frantic pace. Overworked parents hurry children through life as we are pressured to fit more in. Making choices takes time and time is something we all don’t have. We have our children in a myriad of activities before and after school, we race them from one to the next. I have heard some parents discuss this program of events each week “ On Mondays we are at soccer and guides, Tuesdays and Thursdays swimming, Wednesdays and Fridays back to back dance lessons…” and weekends are spent racing between competitions for all of these and many of the same children possibly learn a musical instrument that they must practice daily. From the beginning of Prep year, children bring home readers and alphabet/sounds to learn. If you have a few children, multiply these homework activities by that number!
When do children get a choice of what to play and how to do it when they are so scheduled to activities where someone is instructing them. The other issue with such over scheduling is that children do not learn the important skill of making good choices with free time. When children finally are given choice as an adolescent (because they are now old enough) they have no skills to deal with the multitude of choices on offer and often do nothing or choose less than savoury options (drugs, drink or endless hours being entertained by screens ) to fill the time.
Children having their own voice and feeling that they can say no and be listened to is particularly important in areas of personal safety, appropriate and inappropriate behaviour with regards their bodies. Children knowing they have a choice to say no and stop, from an early age, about certain behaviour, can keep them safer from predators. (great article: The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent Ages 1 -21 www.goodmenproject.com/families/the-healthy-sex-talk-teaching-kids-consent-ages-1-21 )
The importance of building choice into life at a very young age, where appropriate, cannot be understated. Decision making or Agency is a skill set that needs support and practice, developing over time.
Open ended experiences and play, environments where children can choose the materials or equipment and how they wish to utilise them, assist the development of Agency.
Allowing children to make sensible choices about which activities they would like to take part in or what they wear. Yes, they might say they want to do everything or choose something inappropriate to wear, but this could be the “teachable moment” where options are discussed and sensible life decisions are made; wisdom prevailing over mad time-tableting or wearing a tight, short, frilly skirt to play in the mud and climb trees.
Decision making is such a large part of our lives. As adults, we all think about the roads we did or didn’t take and, at times, regrets follow. Agency is a necessary life skill, just as important as the ability to dress ourselves, toilet training or reading and writing.
Making the right choices for us, healthy, sustainable choices, effects the very quality and longevity of our lives…lets help our children develop these vital skills for the future.

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