Making tough choices


My son, who is 11, has known a boy for several years and likes him. This boy has a reputation of being weird and a nerd. My son is afraid that if he is friendly to him, he'll get the same label. My son feels badly because this boy doesn't really have any friends. What can my son do?

H.M., Phoenix, Ariz.

What your son must do is sort out his attitudes and feelings and make a difficult decision. The most important thing you can do is stay on the sidelines, and, from there, ask your son a lot of questions.

Rather than just tell an 11-year-old what to do, parents can look at this as an opportunity to teach values and skills that the child will use for the rest of his life, says Maurice Elias, co-author of "Teach Your Child Decision-Making" (Psychological Enterprises Inc., $29.95).

"The child is being asked to do something courageous, and the parent needs to have the proper respect for what he's going through," says Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

The best place to begin is to ask yourself a question. "It would be helpful for the parent to reflect on what answer she'd like for the child to come up with," Elias says. "Is the climate around the child one that has an acceptance and tolerance for diversity?"

Next, lead the child through some simple decision-making techniques. First, invite the child to write down as many different feelings about the problem as he can identify. Second, ask him to put the problem into his own words and say it out loud.

"Finally, ask the child what he most wants to have happen," Elias says. "Then the mom should say: You've done a terrific job thinking about this. What do you choose?"

Questions such as these cause the child to explore his own values, says Jerry Wyckoff, co-author of "20 Teachable Virtues" (Perigee, $12).

"I hear this same problem a lot from children I counsel, and I always ask them how bad life would really be if they were considered a nerd," says Wyckoff, a psychologist in Kansas City, Kan.

"If they say they would hate being called a nerd, I ask them what other things they have hated and lived through," Wyckoff says.

Many readers called Child Life to offer practical suggestions to make the task of befriending the boy easier.

"Have the boy get another friend to go along with him," suggests Dorothea Jaster of Gardena, Calif.

"Your son should encourage the other boy to join in sports or some kind of club where they have an interest in common and the other boy can feel part of an accepted group," says Bill Graham, from Salinas, Calif.

However, Wyckoff cautions against parents trying to prevent childhood hardships.

"If you're trying to help the child develop character, you have to be careful about making things too easy," Wyckoff says. "If you prevent all adversity, when it does finally come, the child has learned no coping skills."

Elias agrees.

"Down the road, the parent is going to want the child to have the courage to resist negative peer pressure," he says. "When do we start teaching it? Do we start with minor situations like this, or are we going to wait for the tough things like teen-age drinking?"

Still, Elias says, parents should not force their children to make courageous choices.

"If your son makes a choice you don't agree with, begin now to focus on the next time he has to make that decision," Elias says.

In his book, Wyckoff identifies several steps parents can take to teach virtues such as courage and compassion:

Look for examples of these virtues in daily life and point them out.

Make yourself a model of these virtues.

Praise these qualities in your child when you do see them.

"With an 11-year-old, if you make a focused teaching effort, you can start to see results in as little as two weeks," Wyckoff says.

Then, Elias suggests, revisit your son's initial decision. "In a week or so, ask your son how he feels about how things are going."

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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