Giving Your Child Choices

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Young babies don’t realize that they are separate beings from their mothers and fathers, but somewhere around their second birthday they start to realize that they don’t really want to take that nap or they’re not going to eat those peas. This can be a trying time for any parent but it can also be a time for celebration. Their child is learning to define who they are by discovering their own distinct likes and dislikes.

Is “no” your toddler’s favorite word. Do you find yourself battling your two year old over the simplest things?  Don’t worry! Toddler’s can try the patience of even the calmest and most experienced parents. What’s a parent to do? Offering choices is a simple but effective parenting tool that will help reduce power struggles and help your child feel they have some control in their life. Offering choices allow children to comply with your wishes while having the “last word.” Humans love control and our children are no different. They feel empowered when they are given a choice but we maintain control by deciding what choices to offer.

Giving choices helps children attend to the task at hand, comply with your wishes, learn decision making skills, avoid power struggles, learn impulse control and establish and maintain self-control. A skilled parent knows to offer choices that don’t make a problem for them or anyone else. They know to offer choices that they can deliver. They also know when not to offer a choice. In matters of health or safety, children have absolutely no say in the matter. A wise parent would not ask their child, “Do you want to wear your helmet?” or “Do you want to take a nap?” They know that these are times when the child does not have a choice. Children need to understand that they do not have input into every situation.

A sensible parent knows that two positive choices optimize the chance for cooperation. They offer two positive choices that move the child toward the goal at hand. When delivering choices follow these steps:

  1. Make sure that you are calm. Take a deep breath and relax.
  2. Tell your child, “You have a choice” in an upbeat tone.
  3. State the two positive choices you have created to achieve your goal. Say, “You may ___________ or you may __________________?”
  4. Ask your child to make a commitment. “What is your choice?”
  5. Notice your child’s choice. Say, “You chose _______________!” in an encouraging tone. Be sure to make this comment. It will bring awareness to your child about his or her choice. Children who are aware of their choices will not only feel less controlled but also have greater self-control.

If the goal is to get the child to stop jumping on the bed, the parent might say, “Do you want to jump off by yourself or do you want me to help you?”

If the goal is to leave the playground at 4:30 the wise parent asks their child at 4:15, “Do you want to leave now or in 15 minutes?” When the child says “15 minutes” the parent says, “You chose to leave in 15 minutes.”

Another rule for offering choices is that if the child doesn’t decide in 10 seconds, you decide for them. When my daughter was young she would always want something to eat before going to bed. Our conversation would go something like this:

I would say, “You can have toast or cereal?”

She would reply, “I want cookies.”

“You can have toast or cereal?”

“I want cookies.”

“If you don’t choose, I’ll choose for you.”

“What are you going to choose?”


She would stamp her feet and say, “I’ll have cereal then.”She would always choose the opposite of the one I would have chosen for her.

In order for choices to work they have to be true choices. Many parents use threats as choices. ”Are you going to behave or go sit in the corner?” Research indicates that the brain operates differently under a threat. Under threat, the brain reacts with increased blood flow to the survival centers of the brain and decreased blood flow to the higher thought centers. When the brain goes into survival mode, it becomes less capable of planning, pattern-detection, receiving information, creativity, classifying data, and problem solving.

The next time you and your toddler get into a power struggle have some choices ready. It’s a parenting tool that really works.

--Diana Kimber, UPAT Parent Educator

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