Giving your child choices: the why and how of giving choices
This is a picture of my then almost two-year old, taken in June. Notice the Halloween shirt? My initial thought process to her choosing this shirt was “No way! We are 4 months away from Halloween!”
I took a step back, put my own issues with this aside, and realized it doesn’t really matter. It is a small decision in her world but she was so proud to choose her own outfit.
I get asked by parents all the time about giving children choices. There are always a lot of questions about it. When is it age appropriate? Why is it important to give children choices? How much or little should I let my child decide? Will giving choices mean that my child runs the house? Should kids even have a choice?
You may be wondering why letting your child choose things for themselves matters (If this is the case you are not alone). Allowing your child to make decisions and choices throughout their day helps them become more responsible, more independent, and better prepares them for their future. They are more invested in things when they have a say or a choice in decision-making. This is also a great way for them to practice making decisions that will only benefit them in the future.
Imagine being a child where everything is chosen for you. What you eat, what you wear, when you go to bed, etc. It is a frustrating way to live. Having no control over your surroundings, you will most likely begin to exert your power in other ways (think defiance, temper tantrums, etc).
If every decision is made for you, you also don’t get any practice making decisions. Think about becoming an adult after a childhood filled without any opportunities to make choices. How will you know a good choice vs. a bad choice? How would you know how to weigh your options? Once we enter adulthood out decisions get bigger and more impactful, so making poor decisions may cause us more harm. Practicing as a child allows you to build decision making skills (and learn to live with poor choices) without the potential for real harm.
Offering choices throughout the day is a great way to teach these decision-making skills as well as increase responsibility and independence.
Some things we will need to choose for our child. I know that my children need adequate sleep so we do have a bedtime (that I chose). They do however, get to choose the stories we read. Sometimes they even choose to run around and play instead of having story time. A child’s ability to choose is also trumped if there is a safety or well-being issue at hand.
For me, bedtime is a well-being issue. Wearing shorts and a tank top on a snowy day is another. These are the times where I will chime in and offer some redirection or offer the choices that I approve of (meaning no matter which they choose I am fine with the outcome). I may offer a rationale and additional choices in these situations to help guide them.
Now let us look at a few helpful guidelines for giving choices:
Make it age appropriate: If children are young you may want to limit their choices between two or three things. Giving them open-ended options is too much for young children. For example “do you want an apple or orange”? This makes it more manageable for a younger child. Options can increase with age.
Make sure you are ok with whatever they choose: If you offer two choices make sure you are truly OK with whichever they choose. In my home my children pick out their own clothes. This often means mismatched attire. I am OK with this, but if you are not you may want to pick two outfits and let them choose the parent-approved options. If you offer a completely open-ended choice such as “what do you want for dinner?” you need to be prepared for their response. You can negotiate through open-ended questions with older children (this is also dependent on their disposition) but to avoid potential negotiations and debates it may be easier to ask if they want chicken, beef, or pasta.
Don’t put in your two cents: If you are giving a child a chance to make decisions, let them make them. Take a step back and let them have control. Do not provide your opinion or feedback. It is tempting to try to influence our children towards a direction we think is best, but it is important for our children to learn this valuable skill themselves. If they ask for help or feedback, you can engage, but let them invite you into the process.
Stick to the choice: This can be tough but it is important. Dealing with the consequences of our choices provides us feedback and helps us with this process in the future. If you ask your child if they want pizza or pasta and they choose pizza, that is what they get. If half way through the pizza they change their mind, well, it is too late and that is the choice they made. This can be tough to stick to especially if you have a child that is great at arguing and negotiating. The best way to manage this is to calmly say “you chose pizza. Maybe next time you can choose differently.” It is their choice, so while they may be angry and frustrated that they can’t change their minds, the responsibility is on them not you.
Choices are a great tool to us in terms of discipline: I often find giving choices when you want to illicit a certain behavior can be helpful as well. It highlights the fact that both you and your child know that ultimately they choose whether or not they cooperate. Once this fact is out there, there isn’t much need for a power play. Your role in this is offering an alternative consequence or option.
A popular one in our house is having to hold hands while in a parking lot. My then 2-year-old was not a fan. She wanted to be independent and was not into holding hands. She was faced with the following choice nearly every time: ” you can choose to hold my hand or you can choose for me to carry you.” She is not a fan of either choice but if she refuses my hand she gets scooped up and gets carried. Now just because she had a choice doesn’t mean she likes what she chose. Sometimes she is angry about it. Even as adults we aren’t always happy with our own choices. In this case I calmly say, “you chose not to hold my hand so I have to carry you. Maybe next time you will choose different.”
What choices could you start allowing your child to make? Over the next few days see if you can offer more decision making opportunities and see how your child responds and grows.
Claudia Glassman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist, and Parent Coach. Mighty Oak Parenting was started as a way for her to share all the things she learned from being a therapist as well as a parent. Her vision is to share her knowledge and bring awareness to the importance of the relationship that we have with our children.
**Disclaimer: This blog is the opinion of an individual and is not to be construed as professional advice or a professional relationship. If you are seeking mental health advice contact a therapist in your area. If you are experiencing an emergency, head to your nearest emergency room or call 911.