04/30/2014 04:13 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

How to Teach Kids to Make Mindful Choices -- Even When We, Parents, Aren't Around

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Every few weeks is "one thing day" for me and my 3-year-old son, Ari. I take him to a toy store in the neighborhood and allow him to choose one thing. (Emphasis on "choose.") I purposefully make the toy-hunting experience an opportunity to teach my son how to become a good choice-maker.

You see, I'm a big believer that your life is basically a sum of all the choices you make. The better your choices, the better opportunity to lead a happy life.

Of course, I also recognize that a lot of what happens to us also has to do with stuff we cannot control. But if you're a good choice maker, you can choose the best emotional responses and choose the best new life paths, forward and upward.

Basically, a big secret to a happy life is to learn to become a choosier choice-maker.

So with all this in mind, let me explain more to you about our "one thing day" and how our toy shopping experience winds up unfolding.

We will enter the toy store and Ari will immediately start perusing the shelves -- often instantly finding something that he wants.

"I want this as my one thing," Ari has been known to announce within 60 seconds of arriving at the toy store -- often pointing to a box of Legos.

"OK, let's consider that as your one thing, but let's also keep on looking," I'll suggest. "Remember, sometimes the best choice is not the first choice. Sometimes there's something better around the corner. Keep on looking."

Tool #1: I'm a big believer that often being overly impulsive/overly reactive is what gets us into trouble in life. I've witnessed this in a variety of areas -- from my once-heart-achey love life to my once-overly-saturated shoe life. When I look back at some of my past impulse-driven choices, I find myself asking: What was I thinking? The answer? I was not thinking, I was reacting without mindful thought. I want to teach my son that the best choices are mindful, thoughtful choices.

Next up, my son will continue to search the shelves. A few minutes later, he'll announce, "I want this as my one thing!," usually pointing to a Spiderman-related object or one of Spiderman's many nemeses. (Note: Yep, I Googled it and this is indeed how you spell the plural to nemesis!)

"OK, let's consider that choice too," I tell Ari, "But remember, you already have lots of Spiderman toys that sort of look like that. Maybe you want to find something new and different, yes?"

Tool #2 : I'm a big believer that many of our choices we make in life are due to habit, familiarity, comfort, fear of the unknown -- which can keep our lives small. I want to teach my son not to make the same narrow-focused choices due to an automatic default to habit, familiarity, comfort and fear of the unknown. Instead, I want to encourage my son to expand his horizons -- live a big and thriving life -- making choices which are conscious, awake and often courageously unfamiliar! Anais Nin was correct when she said, "One's life shrinks or expands according to one's courage!"

Next up, my son will poke around on some more shelves, and eventually, he'll choose something fun but dangerous for a 3-year-old.

"Hmmm, this toy looks like a lot of fun," I will say, "but it also looks a bit dangerous -- like it could lead to an ouchie."

Tool #3: I'm a big believer that it's important for my son to become aware of the long-term consequences of his choices -- recognize how a particular choice can have both good and bad long-term effects. Indeed, many of life's most fun and pleasurable choices come with potential dangers. It's important for my son to grow up recognizing that what might appear exciting or inviting at first glance could also have eventual negative consequences. I want him to be aware that every choice should not just be chosen for it's immediate gain but should also include a consideration of the long-term results. After all, so many of the most tempting aspects of adult life -- lusty love, yummy margaritas, hot-looking motorcycles, cool-looking tattoos, grumble-grumble cigarettes, etc. -- all have potentially long-term difficulties. I want my son to start now to have a mindset which recognizes that often, life's most tempting choices come with a strong negative-consequence quotient, so it's key to be mindful choice-maker!

Anyway, often, Ari winds up with two or three toys to consider as his one thing. I will then ask my son why he likes each of the toys.

"I love Legos because I love doing them with you mommy, as a team," Ari says. "And I love Spiderman because he's powerful and a good guy, and he makes me happy. And this Green Goblin toy, he's scary and mean... maybe I don't want Green Goblin."

"So you prefer toys which make you feel happy, and you like toys that you and I can play with as a team."

Tool #4: I repeat back the mindful, thoughtful thinking behind my son's choice, so my son can learn to become more aware of the feelings and reasoning which are leading to his choices. And I especially want my son to become aware of the negative feelings that toys with "evil characters" or "dangerous/violent guns" make him feel. And these specific kinds of toys do make Ari feel "yucky" when he takes the time to become aware of his feelings. "Violence makes me feel yucky," my son Ari has even stated! And of course I've repeated back these words to him, to reinforce I've heard him and to reinforce within him how he feels so he becomes consciously aware of his own core values -- which is that he does not like evil characters and dangerous/violent toys.

"Yes," Ari says, "And I also like Legos because I like being a builder. I like to build things."

"So, you enjoy the feeling of building something, watching it become something else," I repeat back.

"Yes, I do," Ari says, "And I like doing Legos with you! I like when we do things together. I want Legos as my one thing!"

"OK, sounds like you're making a good choice for your one thing."

Tool #5: I love using these specific words: "You're making a good choice." I want my son to become aware that he is in charge of the choices he makes, and it's good to make thoughtful, good choices.

Tool #6: Conversely, if my son does something which falls into the category of "bad" -- like throwing a toy, jumping from a high step, screaming loudly in a restaurant -- I will tell him how this is a "bad choice" or "not a safe choice." I want him to know he has the power to choose the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do, as well as the power to choose a toy that is best for him. Basically, I feel it's much more impactful to say to my son, "That's a bad choice," or "That's not a safe choice," rather than to say to him, "Stop being bad." I feel when I tell my son, "That's a bad choice," or "That's not a safe choice," I'm giving my son the power to choose, on his own, the right and wiser behavior rather than have me choose his behavior for him. It's very important for me to make sure that my son doesn't get used to me dictating and commanding what he should do. Instead, I'd rather my son develop good, mindful, thoughtful choice-making skills on his own, so he can learn to make right and wiser choices on his own.

Again, I'm a huge believer that your life is basically a sum of all the choices you make. The better your choices, the better opportunity you will have to lead a happy life.

Tool #7: A good tool for ensuring a happy life: Make it a priority to become a choosier choice-maker!

Karen Salmansohn is a best selling author and award winning designer (with over one million books sold), who is passionate about empowering people to live their happiest, highest potential lives. She's known for creating a new breed of self-help for people who would never be caught dead doing self-help because she merges a range of psychological and philosophical research with humor and stylish graphics. Some popular titles: How to Be Happy Dammit, The Bounce Back Book and Prince Harming Syndome.