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The Power of Offering Children Choices

Offering Choices
Christine Brown

Christine Brown

“I don’t want the blue cup, I want the red cup!”

As parents, it’s amazing to us how quickly the wrong-colored cup can bring on full-blown temper tantrum, but here we are with a child melting down over what seems like nothing to us. 

When I hear stories like this during a child behavior consultation, it immediately says to me that the child needs more age-appropriate choices (aka control) in their lives. When our children don’t get age-appropriate control, this can create power struggles and decreased cooperation.   Think about it…

How much do we control our children’s lives?

When they are little, we choose their clothes, their food, their activities, their friends, and their schedule.

But as our little one’s move into toddler and preschooler territory; they want more control and more say!

This is normal in child development and as your child gets older, the more choices they’ll want and need.  As adults, we want full reign over our lives and to make all of our own choices, right? 

We want to help our children to get from where they are now to grow into adults that have the skills they need to be successful.  

Offering Choices Prepares Our Children for Adulthood

One way we can help with the maturation process and help our children grow into adults that have the skills they need to be successful is by making sure that we offer lots of age-appropriate choices. Doing this will:

  • Invite cooperation
  • Help your child develop problem-solving skills
  • Build trust and respect
  • Teach responsibility
  • Allow your child to make mistakes and learn from them
  • Strengthen the parent-child relationship

The more choices your child gets to make while they are home with you, the better they’ll be able to learn from the inevitable mistakes that they are going to make. They’ll get to understand that negative choices lead to negative consequences while they are living with you, and you can teach and support your child. This seems like a way better way of doing things than your child learning that lesson their freshman year of college!

Things To Consider When Offering Choices

Only offer a choice when there is a choice

If it is time to head up for bath, don’t say “would you like to go take your bath now?” The answer will always be “NO!”  Instead say, “it is time for bath. Would you like to climb the stairs yourself or would you like to hold hands?”

Parents choose the options

You know what choices will be acceptable for your child to choose based on your adult knowledge. Offer choices that you know will fit within the timeframe you have available or the food options that you have available.  If you say “what game do you want to play before getting ready for bed?” and your child chooses Monopoly, you’ll inevitably say “we don’t have time for Monopoly tonight.” This can set you both up for frustration and conflict. Instead, try “we have time for a game before bed. Do you want to play Guess Who or Spot it?”

Don’t offer too many choices

Having too many choices can be overwhelming.  Try to limit choices to 2 options or use your judgment to determine how many choices your child can handle based on their age. For your three-year-old, give two choices on what to have for breakfast: “Do you want waffles or cereal?”

As your child gets older, they may be able to handle more choices but may need you to provide more guidance.  Your child is 8 years old and can choose what they want to wear without any help, but you may want to provide additional information on what criteria you would use to make a good choice. “Yesterday was a colder day and you wore pants. Today it is going to be warm in the afternoon so you may want to choose to wear shorts and put on a sweatshirt this morning until it warms up.”

Set time limits

If your child is taking too long to make a choice, let them know “either you make a choice or I’ll be choosing for you.”

Consistency

Don’t offer choices for a day or two and then stop. That’s confusing! Be consistent in offering choices to help your child feel empowered and trust you. 

If there isn’t a choice, let your child know why

If you’ve been consistently offering choices and you can’t offer a choice where there normally is one to be had, let your child know why. 

“I can’t give you a choice on snack today. I only have cheese and crackers. When we go shopping, I’ll be able to offer you more choices.”

Don’t offer choices if your child is tantruming or melting down

Their rational brain has shut off and they are now operating with their primitive brain. They aren’t capable of truly hearing what you have to say or making a decision. Your child needs you to make a decision for them and then once your child has calmed down, then you can offer choices.

A classic example of this is if your child is in a parking lot and starts melting down because they want to run. This is a safety concern, so I’d recommend scooping your child up and bringing them to safety.  Once they have calmed down, then you can offer the choice “we are in the parking lot and we have to be safe so do you want to hold Mommy’s hand or ride in the cart?”

Normally in situations like this, I recommend that you set expectations before you get out of the car so your child knows the rules and if they choose to follow the rules, they can choose to walk with you. If they don’t follow the rules, they lose the ability to make that choice.

Let your child make bad choices

We can’t protect our children from making bad decisions 100% of the time! (although we’d love to!) Our children have to make poor decisions so they can learn from their mistakes.  So if it is reasonably safe for your child to make a poor decision, we’ve got to let them make that decision so they have the learning opportunity.  

So next time your toddler doesn’t want to wear a coat outside, let them get a little cold so they can learn that you aren’t being a big meanie wanting them to wear a coat!  If we rescue them from the consequences all the time, they never learn to make better choices. When this happens with my sons’, I empathize with their feelings, but I don’t rescue them.

“Your teacher said that you couldn’t enjoy recess today because you were too cold.  That must have been sad to not be able to play with your friends.  Next time, you may want to wear pants so you will be more comfortable and enjoy recess. We can look at the weather together in the morning.”

They only had to make the decision to wear shorts on a cold day once or twice before they decided to wear pants on cold days.  Now that they are older, I give them additional guidance of

“if it is below 60 degrees, pants will keep your legs warmer and you’ll be more comfortable playing outside at recess. Let’s look at the weather together in the morning so you can decide on the right clothes.”

Choices Shouldn’t Be Threats or Bribes

Sometimes in parenting, taking the path of least resistance can seem like the best choice at the time.  But if your child is having a tantrum in the store and you say “If you stop crying, you can have a toy or a candy” you aren’t offering choices, you are actually bribing them! 

Bribes seem to work in the moment, but what it teaches our children is that if they do this, they’ll get what they want. This reinforces behavior that we don’t want to see.

Instead, try to offer choices before your child is resistant. “If you stay with Mommy and use your indoor voice in the store, you can choose a small toy or a candy when we checkout.”

Also choices can sometimes actually be threats. “Do you want to do your homework now or do you want to miss the park tomorrow and do your homework then?”  Kids see through this for what it is! 

Instead, you can say “your homework has to be done before we go to the park tomorrow. Do you want to do it now or tomorrow morning before we leave?”

I hope the suggestions of offering choices to your child help to create more cooperation! If you want help coming up with age-appropriate choices or need help with challenging behaviors, schedule a discovery call with me to talk about working together!

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