Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Does your child labor over decision making?
When I was 5, I was in a baton twirling club. It was 1973. One afternoon we pigtailed shorties were choosing colors for our uniforms because we were going to twirl in the town parade. Every single one of the twirlers in line ahead of me had chosen the same two colors. Those were not the colors I wanted.
When eyes turned to me, I think I was in shock. If a heart simply can freak out short of having a heart attack, that’s what happened, blood running around punching its tiny, red fists into everything inside my chest cavity. How could I utter my own words and not repeat the clan’s? My short, 5-year-old legs must have been lead weights. I somehow mustered the courage to announce my choice, and the baton leader didn’t bat an eye, just jotted down the colors. No quiet smile to acknowledge the profound difficulty I’d overcome. Obviously, she didn’t realize this 5-year-old had just suffered a myocardial in-freak-tion. That 30-second blip of time still lives in me 45 years later. Kid decisions can be painfully hard.
This is what I remember: First, the question. I had one innocent color combo to decide. Second, overwhelming panic. And third, no one said a word about my dissent. I don’t remember names or faces or even the colors I chose. I don’t remember what the gym looked like, the lighting, the weather. None of that came to me when the memory surfaced. But because this ancient, tiny memory arrived as a felt moment in my adulthood, this made me think. Sometimes what we view as trivial decisions might be incredibly difficult and highly emotional for a child. The hard part as a parent is that most often we don’t know what’s happening inside our kids’ heads, or the depth to which they feel their feelings.
I also don’t know why twirling clubs aren’t the rage today, but I do know my daughters would love to throw metal rods 10 feet in the air. Perhaps this activity has gone the way of the saber-toothed playgrounds of the ’70s. We’ve made things safer (sometimes blunted them to a fault), but there still exist inside kids’ heads a lot of scary moments when they feel the pressure to choose perfectly. Add to that when they are called to decide something that puts them at odds with others. Decades or centuries likely won’t soften that pressure. Making decisions can leave kids feeling they will make mistakes or leave them feeling exposed or ignorant.
What can ease this process is giving kids our attention and respect as they try to wrangle an answer out of their mini storehouse of life lessons. I’ve started slowing down, trying harder to not trivialize my girls’ waffling around in their decisions. I never openly have dismissed my kids when they are trying to make a decision, but I have grown impatient. Now when I recall that baton moment, I realize if I had such a hard time announcing two colors, albeit two colors different from the pack, most of the time kids are probably genuinely laboring over their decisions.
Life is a sliding scale of decisiveness. Part of the inherent virtue of aging is that as adults, we’ve made our share of decisions, both good and bad. Our children are just on-ramping to life. We do well to remember little decisions are bigger to littler people. Even if we have no magic answer to dispense, our not adding pressure has to be a relief to their busy, often confused brains.
By the time I turned 6, we had moved thousands of miles away from the city of batons. I couldn’t unearth the leader if I tried. I find it strange that she lives in my memory, just the idea of a person, so I can’t see her face. I only know that she didn’t make a face that day to tell me in any way that I made an error in choice. She played it like a pro and let me have my colors. This is another take-away from that 30-second blip. What if that woman had chosen a different tack? She could have looked up from her clipboard and said, “Well, honey, seems so many want the blue and red colors, I think we’ll just all go with that.” Or, “Are you sure you want orange and yellow?” Now that I am an adult, I hear myself tailoring language in this way. I have overlaid my children’s choices with a question, perhaps trying to save them potential embarrassment. I don’t want them to feel lonely on their solo planet.
When I twist the memory and make those changes, I see that the way the baton leader handled it, her giving tacit approval, is maybe why I stored the memory. I had made a hard decision in public and it got to stand. I grew up a little in the few seconds of that exchange. Somehow in the complexity of the mind, the cartoon figures that operate my emotions slid that eight ball right down into my core memory tube.
We make zillions of types of decisions and they all have different weights and textures. But the exchange that helped me carry this lesson deeper into myself was when my 12-year-old showed up at the front door ready for the day out. Her clothing ensemble in my mind was akin to five different designers’ each choosing separate pieces without communicating with one another. There were florals, plaids, different colors…I honestly wondered how those decisions had been structured. This took place, though, after years of my having to decide my fashion sense (not trendy in any sense) was not my daughters’. More to the point, I didn’t want them to discount their own sensibilities.
This ensemble, though, made my cup runneth over, and I said something. My daughter replied, “I like it.” She took a moment to look over her clothing and nodded, once again deciding to go with it. Sometime later I saw a trending thread of clothing pictures where the look was just that. Mixed. I really liked the look when I actually thought about it. It makes complete sense to the 50-year-old I am and the 5-year-old inside me. The younger obviously likes color, and the older is lazy about what to pair together. I was just not as up to speed as my daughter.
So I am thinking we might add another certainty to taxes and death: decisions.
They are most definitely a certainty. At age 50, I have made uncountable decisions and I still waffle in some of them. And I still make a number of bad ones. The one advantage parents have? We know there’s a hefty million more decisions to make. We’re quicker. But that’s how the tender little moments become time-consuming-no-big-deals.
So while you’re waiting for your kid to decide which stuffed animal in the toy aisle is the perfect one, zoom back to your 5-year-old self if you can get there. She or he might wonder the exact same thing.
Maggie Uhl lives in Waldo with her husband and two daughters.