When my children were still at school and the summer holidays were coming to an end, in the last week that they were off, everyone in the family was allowed to choose how to spend a Special Day.
During the Special Day, the individual could choose what the rest of the family did, including what we ate and where we would go. The only rule was that it could not be one of the many Algarve attractions, such as a water park, as we had exhausted them all during the wonderfully long, almost three months’ school holidays.
Some parents are horrified by the long Portuguese holidays, but I love them, always have, because, as a child, it gave my sisters and me the opportunity of spending the summer months in the UK with our grandparents and, with them, every day was special.
My children loved the power that the Special Day would give them, and it brought us closer together as a family, teaching us to respect each other’s choices and to do things together even if we were not that keen on the chosen activity.
My primary teacher training was in full use on one of my chosen days as we went for a walk around our local town. This trip incorporated geography, with map reading and history, as we looked for dates on buildings and compared old postcards of Lagoa to discuss the then and now differences. Art also featured as we sat and drew a picture of something, whether it was a close-up of a window or the whole building.
Other choices included painting the view of the Marinha beach cliffs, visiting the Donkey Sanctuary where we helped out with the rescue animals, picnics in the garden, nature walks in Monchique and swimming in the natural Fontes de Estombar pools. Activities can be fun, educational and free! In the evening, we ate the individual’s favourite meal and watched their chosen film.
These days made wonderful memories for the family, and it taught my children so much. Apart from the physical activity itself and the knowledge that they learnt from the trips, it also taught them about self-esteem and worth as it made them feel important, in control and that their opinion was valid.
Children have the basic human needs for food, warmth, comfort and love. Our Special Days were just for fun but, by allowing our children to choose their day, we were supporting their emotional and mental development too.
Did you know that tantrums and misbehaviour are often because the child wants to feel in control? By providing children with opportunities to be heard and treated as important decision-makers within the family, they learn about co-operation and empathy. Conflict can be avoided by offering them simple choices.
However, giving a child a choice does not mean letting them ‘boss’ the adults around to the point where they have tantrums if they do not get their own way. The choices can be small things to the adult but mean a lot to the child. Choices give children confidence and empowers them whilst teaching them to be independent decision-makers which is an important adult skill.
Encouraging decision-making in children can be as simple as letting them choose what to wear or which homework to do first, what colour socks to wear, or whether they prefer carrots or peas for dinner. Choices should be limited between two or three things, like offering a selection of clothes to choose from, not the whole wardrobe! Offering a selection of books for bedtime, not the whole bookcase or you could end up reading a very long book!
We always gave our children choices in their daily lives, but they still knew the boundaries and never had tantrums, thank goodness! For example, from a very young age, we allowed our children to paint their bedrooms, which horrified many of my friends who had pristine white walls, but it gave my children ownership and taught them responsibility.
One time my daughter painted beautiful, five-year-old-style flowers, butterflies, caterpillars and storks while my seven-year-old son chose an under-the-sea world, which we all contributed to with various sea creatures. The drawings were not perfect, but they were theirs and something to be proud of.
However, children also need to be taught the consequences associated with their choices so if a child fails in their chosen task, instead of criticising them, we should help them deal with the consequences.
When eventually my son chose to paint over the pictures and paint all his bedroom walls black, I was not happy. He had to learn for himself the consequences of his choice and, after a few weeks when he soon realised black was not a good colour choice, we helped him repaint the walls a light grey. He took responsibility for his wrong choice of colour and did most of the work!
In my previous life, as a teacher of six-year-olds, I set them various tasks to be completed throughout the day, such as explore the science table, do some sums, write about their weekend, paint a self-portrait, etc. Each morning, I explained the day’s work and started each group off on the first activity.
For the rest of the day, the children were free to choose which activity they did next, ticking off each completed activity on a chart so they and I knew what was left to do. It gave the class great autonomy and responsibility. Of course, I monitored things to ensure each child finished their tasks, but it was interesting to note how the children organised themselves and whether they chose the fun activities first or whether they did the least liked ones first so they could enjoy the rest of the day. We all respected each other, and the children enjoyed the independence and responsibility. Even the more exuberant children tended to behave as they did not feel constricted.
Life is defined by the choices we make. And the power of choice, even with little things, can strengthen adult-child relationships and provide the basis for our children to grow up to be independent, secure, fulfilled and thus happy adults.
So, before it is time for schoolbags, books and early-morning routines, why not let your family choose a Special Day too? If nothing else, it should be fun!
So now you know!
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.