Paper or plastic? Jeans or khakis? Soup or salad? We are all faced with thousands of choices every day of our lives. Some of these choices are so ingrained in us by society, we don’t even think about them. Most people don’t weigh out the pros and cons of getting dressed in the morning versus showing up for work in their underwear for example. The choices we make help us to have control over our lives and our environment. In the same aspect, offering choices to your child can help her to have some control over her life–and reduce defiance.
How does this work? Most children’s lives are very controlled, with parents making most of the decisions–and for good reason. As parents, we are entrusted with our kids’ health and well-being; therefore, we make choices for our children that they must wear their seatbelts in the car, go to bed at a certain hour and are not allowed to be abusive to, or be abused by, other family members. James Lehman reminds us that part of being an effective parent is having “firm outer boundaries and flexible inner boundaries.” By giving control over some of the less important choices to your child, every decision made does not have to be a battle for compliance.
Here are some tips to start offering your child more decisions:
- Don’t offer too many choices at once. This is even more important if you are dealing with a young child, or if you are just starting out. It can be overwhelming to your child to go from having no choice to too many choices. Offer two things to pick between to start-for example, ask “Do you want milk or water with dinner?” rather than “What do you want to drink?” As your child gets older and more skilled at decision making, you can offer more choices.
- Make sure all options provided are acceptable to you. You do not have to cede total control over your child by offering more choices. By presenting your child with available, appropriate options, it is less likely that her choice will lead to a fight. The choice isn’t whether or not to go to bed; however, she can choose whether to brush her teeth first or put on pajamas.
- Remember that the decision not to choose is still a choice. You can still hold your child accountable if he is making an intolerable decision. For example, if you offer your teenager the option of doing his homework before dinner or after dinner, and he chooses not to do it at all, that is his choice. You still have the power to give him a consequence for that selection, and an opportunity to make a better decision next time.
Reality offers us lots of options, and numerous possible outcomes for each decision we make. Our job as parents is to prepare our children to face the real world and be successful, however that is defined. As a friend of mine put it, “We are not raising children-we are raising adults.” One way that we can support that preparation is to help our children in their problem solving skills while they are still in the home, and the stakes are not nearly as high. By giving your child the power of choice, you are assisting them in decision making abilities that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
So, are you going to start offering more choices now, or later?