Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
In this class we will explore how to teach children the power of free choice. Very young children from ages three to six don’t have real bechira chofshit. They are the prisoners of their upbringing, fears, instincts, and desire for love. Therefore, don’t expect too much from them. Give them opportunities to make good choices and when they do, be sure to tell them how wonderful they are. Sometimes you will have to point out that they made a bad choice. They need to be aware that their choices have consequences and that this is a power that only people have. You can illustrate by saying, “This flower will be red whether you water it or not, because flowers can’t make choices.” If your child is sophisticated enough, you can explain this concept with animals too, “This dog is barking because he is a dog. He can’t choose not to bark.”
Children from ages six to ten can comprehend much more. Show them their options. Make it clear to them that all of their good choices will bring positive results, and other choices will bring other consequences. So when Yanky makes a loud bracha with kavana, tell him, “What an incredible bracha. I bet all the malachim in heaven answered amen. That was a good choice.” You could tell Chani, “Remember yesterday, when you made a beautiful bracha on the lollipop? That was a good choice. Maybe think about doing it again now.”
The more you make your child aware that they have the choice to be good, the more empowered they’ll feel and the less resentful they’ll be towards you. Show your child that bad choices have consequences and that they have the power to fight against the consequences by making good choices and avoiding bad decisions. There’s a huge difference, even for an adult, between being pressured or forced to make a good choice, and making the choice yourself of your own volition. At this age it is not a good idea to make your child your buddy, but you can solicit his opinion on small matters. Asking your ten year old, “What do you think I should do?” makes him realize that there are choices and consequences and that you are making the effort to choose the best option.
Teach children negotiation skills. Perfect negotiation is when both parties end up feeling that they got more or less what they wanted. These techniques are crucial for maintaining shalom in life. It comes with wanting the other person to be happy while at the same time seeing that there are choices. Many times even with negotiation there is a winner and a loser. In such a situation you can say, “This time we’ll do it this way, and next time we’ll do it that way.” If the child persists and says, “No I want it this way now,” you should ask him why, and try to work out a compromise.
Tell children that they can choose how they want things to be. Tell them stories to drive this point home. For example, “Estie was really looking forward to the family picnic. Every day she would pack some more things into the hamper to take along. Finally when the great day arrived, it rained. What are her choices now?” Draw scenarios. “Estie can say, ‘Hashem didn’t think it was a picnic day today. Maybe it can be a dollhouse, cutout, or painting day.’ Or Estie can mope around the house and complain, ‘I don’t want to do anything. I just want a picnic.’ Which choice will make her happier?”
Teach your children to color in the outlines of life. Talk with them about the child who is willing to make choices and the child who chooses to ignore that other possibilities exist. Tell them that Hashem expects maximum hishtadlut, effort, from us, but the end results are always in His hands. If things don’t turn out the way we want them, we should think of other options. This can be life transforming and will serve them well in the future.