The Magic of Limited Choices

Giving choices may be the single most useful tool parents have for managing life with children. It really is almost a magic wand.

So, why does this little trick of giving choices work so effectively? Because it’s a win-win solution. You’re offering only choices that are okay with you, so you’re happy. Your child gets to pick one that’s okay with them, so they’re happy.

You sidestep the power struggle because you aren’t making them do something; they are choosing. The child is in charge, within your parameters. No one likes to be forced to do something. Here, because they choose, they cooperate.

Every human being needs to feel powerful and in control.

In being able to make decisions and to choose, our children are able to exert the little power they feel that they have in this world. When they feel powerless, they tend to dig deep and pull out their mightiest tantrum in a last ditch effort to get their power back.

Giving children choices helps them feel like they have some control over their lives.

Giving kids a say or choice also:

  • builds respect
  • strengthens community
  • invites cooperation
  • develops problem-solving skills
  • capitalizes on kids’ normal human need for power and control

Making choices is important to a child’s development and helps them learn how to make wise decisions and speak their minds. It helps children build a sense of self-respect as we place our trust in them to make good decisions.

Giving them the freedom to choose also helps develop their problem-solving and independent thinking skills and satisfies their natural need for power and control.

As parents, we need to find a healthy balance between giving our children choices so they can feel empowered and learn independence, but at the same time not give them too much power that our relationship suffers for it.

While giving choices has its benefits, too many options can lead to decision fatigue, overwhelm, and power struggles.

Offering limited choices instead of making demands can be very effective. Children often respond to choices when they will not respond to demands, especially when you follow the choice with, “You decide.”

Choices should be respectful and should focus attention on the needs of the situation.

Here are 5 guidelines for giving kids a voice and a say:

1. Avoid overwhelming them

Kids want and expect their parents to provide structure and make key family decisions. It helps them feel safe. While it’s great to give kids a say in things, too many or too big of choices can overwhelm them or put too much pressure on them.

Give young children the choice between only two things. If they don’t or can’t pick between the two, don’t offer a third.

What if they don’t want either choice and want to do something else? If the something else is acceptable to you, fine. If it is not, say, “That isn’t one of the choices.” And, then repeat the choices and, “You decide.”

Choices are directly related to responsibility. Younger children are less capable of wide responsibility, so their choices are more limited. Older children are capable of broader choices, because they can assume responsibility for the consequences of their choice.

For instance, younger children might be given the choice of going to bed now or in five minutes. Older children might be given full responsibility for choosing their bedtime, because they also take full responsibility for getting themselves up in the morning and off to school without any hassles.

For young children or any child who is easily overwhelmed, an either/or choice works best.

“We have to leave now. Do you want to put on your shoes yourself or do you want me to put them on for you?”

As children get older, choices can get more complicated.

“You can quit soccer if you want, but what sport or physical activity do you think you’d like to try? You need to choose one physical activity.”

Whenever a choice is given, any alternative should be acceptable to the adult. As the adult, we need to provide reasonable options so that they can exercise their power to choose within our parameters.

Adding, “You decide,” after a choice is very empowering. It adds emphasis to the fact that the child does have a choice.

2. Be consistent

If you give children choices once, but not the next time, they naturally get frustrated and protest. Their confusion often results in them “pushing back,” questioning, or refusing to comply as a way to determine where the “real” boundaries are. Adults often end up viewing this “push-back” as uncooperative or acting-out behavior when it is really just a way for children to determine the extent of their power.

If one night you say, “What do you want for dinner?” and the next night you say, “We’re having lasagna and you can’t have anything different,” they are likely to whine or protest because boundaries become confusing.

If one weekend you ask, “What do you want to do this morning? Our whole family will do anything you want.” And the next weekend you say, “You are going with Dad to the grocery store then coming to a friend’s house with me,” kids may not understand the incongruence.

Choices are also directly related to the respect for, and convenience of, others. When getting ready for school, younger children might be given the choice of putting on their shoes before we leave in 5 minutes or putting them on in the car. Older children might be given the choice of being ready in 5 minutes or riding their bike. Either way, mom has to leave in 5 minutes.

3. Create a ritual around choices

Make certain choices “rituals.” For example, when you go to the park, name two parks and they choose which one. Every Saturday morning they may choose to run errands with you or stay home. Every Friday movie night, put two movies in front of your child and let them choose one. At the library, always let them choose 5 books. At night, they can choose night light on or door open. At lunch, they can choose water or milk to drink. At dinner, they can eat the regular meal or eat Cheerios instead (or whatever choices work for your own family).

Choices can be used to help kids learn to manage themselves.

“As soon as your homework is done, I’ll help you carve that pumpkin. Your choice, but I know you want to start on the pumpkin as soon as we can.” He has the choice to procrastinate on his homework, but you’re helping him motivate himself to tackle it now.

4. Ask them to help you fix problems

If your child is having trouble doing the tasks needed to get out the door, put him in charge. Create a checklist on a clipboard of stick-figure pictures of all the things he needs to do to get ready and have him cross off each thing as it gets done.

Ask your child to help you solve the problem of caps not being put back on markers. (She will be more likely to put the caps on, no matter what strategy she comes up with).

If there are books all over your child’s bedroom floor, ask her how she thinks the floor could stay clear.

Choices can teach children consequences.

“You know your piano recital is coming up. Extra practice will help you feel more confident, but that’s your choice.” Don’t offer choices you can’t live with, of course. If you aren’t willing to let her make a fool of herself at the recital, you may need to help her structure her practice effectively.

Children may not have a choice about many things, such as whether or not to do their homework. Homework needs to be done, but children can be offered a choice as to when they would like to do it, such as right after school, just before dinner, or after dinner.

Remember that empathy doubles the effectiveness of giving choices.

Empathy helps the child feel understood, so he’s less upset, and less resistant. That means he’s more likely to actually be able to make a choice and move on. For example, you are disappointed we are leaving, and you cannot continue to play. Do you want to walk to the car like a monkey or an elephant? You decide.

5. Thank and reinforce

If your child shoveled his books off the floor, you could say, “Wow, this shovel idea you thought of is really working out well. I see the floor is as clear as ever! You’re really taking care of your room.”

If your child chose swimming over hiking, you might say, “Thanks for choosing swimming. It was so fun to splash in the water with you.”

If your child chooses to run errands with you, comment, “I’m so glad you chose to help me out. Doing errands is always more fun with you by my side.”

Instead of meeting your child’s resistance with force — which creates a power struggle, and, ultimately, a more resistant child – by providing choices, you affirm their right to some control, but within the bounds you set. The result: A happier, more cooperative child, who knows you’re on his side.

Our goal should be to give our children both roots and wings. We tell ourselves that by arming our kids with the ability to make choices on their own, we are building up their wings for future use. And this is indeed true, but limiting their options keeps them rooted within our parameters. They gain a sense of freedom and independence, while we’re able to uphold our values and our rules without a fight. In this way, we don’t open ourselves up to a power struggle, but we allow them to develop intellectually and exercise control.

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