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Using "Choices" with Children

Updated on October 5, 2012

Choices empower children

We all want Power in our lives. So, do children. Even toddlers. Being able to choose what we are going to do makes us more likely to follow through. Now most adults can make a choice from many options. We choose specific foods at the grocery store when presented with many brands. We choose which movie to go see from the many movies currently showing at our neighborhood theater.

With your children, choices are still a powerful tool to use, but we must teach them about HOW to choose. I worked at a movie theater when I was a teenager and I would watch many parents bring their very young child to the candy counter that had at least thirty different kinds of candies for sale. They would say something like “Which candy do you want?” No other guidance or choices given. And the child would stand for a loooong time unable to make a decision. The parent would become irritated that the child couldn’t choose and often an argument would then develop, then tears. Sometimes, the parent would just get angry and no candy would be purchased and the child chastised for taking so long and the movie experience was ruined for both.

Parents are often given the advice about letting children make choices, but no one gives them any guidance on how to do that. There are a few simple things to know.

1. With the young child - just give two choices. A good place to start is with toys and with food. When playing with your child, you can say “Do you want the ball or the doll?” or “Do you want the car or the train?”. When eating, you might ask, “Do you want applesauce or pears?”. Saying to a young child things like “What do you want to eat?” may set you up for a child who can’t make any choice or who chooses something unacceptable to you.

2. Give lots of practice. Let you toddler choose which socks he wants to wear (from the two pair you put in front of him). Later you can increase to three pair and so on until eventually the older kiddo can pick one pair from the whole drawer of socks. All items of clothing are good things to practice learning on learning to choose. “Do you want to wear your sweater or your jacket?”

3. Now sometimes your child will pick something that you didn’t offer as a choice. Certainly an explanation of why that isn’t an option is fine, but then restate the choices that are ok. “Honey, people don’t wear flip flops to church, but you can wear either your red shoes or the blue ones.”

4. And sometimes that still doesn’t dissuade the child who is fixated on her flip flops. Sometimes you just have to be diligent and repeat those choices several times (like a broken record) before the child finally makes a choice. Sometimes the parent even has to say, “Do you need mom to help you make a choice?” Usually, the child will say “No” and go on and make a choice. And if that fails and you go ahead and make a choice, be prepared for your child to immediatelymake a choice and go for the opposite of what you chose.

Remember, this is a learning process!! Keep at it. Keep giving choices when you can. But NEVER offer a choice that you can’t accept. You are setting you and your child up for a problem.

For instance – you can give a child some control or power over their bedtime, especially if going to bed is a problem. If you want your child in bed by 8:00pm, then you can say, “You can pick when you want to go to bed. You can go to bed at 7:30 or 8:00.” Or “7:45 or 8:00”. Obviously, 8:00 is your latest choice. Sometimes, kids will pick the earlier time, not realizing it (a bonus to you!!). The main thing is that he got to choose. That is powerful.

Making choices is part of our life every single day. Adults have to choose their clothes, their food, the TV shows they watch. More importantly, they choose their partners, their careers, who they vote for and whether or not they do right things or follow the law. Getting to practice making choices and living with them as children helps us learn to consider our choices carefully.

Certainly, as parents we can give guidance to our children’s choice making. If a four year old is demanding that she have a certain item to eat because her big brother is eating it, and you KNOW that she won’t like it AND you have tried to explain that she won’t like it because it is too lumpy, salty, hard, etc, AND while you don’t want her to be sad, this may be a life lesson in making choices. You give her a choice between the food item she wants and another you know she likes. If she chooses the big brother snack and then, doesn’t like it, your message (delivered kindly and with empathy) is something like “I know that is sad now, that you don’t like your dessert/snack/other, but that is the one you chose. Maybe, later after nap when we have dessert/snack/other you can make a different choice.” Is this going to go over well? No. Are there likely to be tears? Yes. Can you do this every single time your child makes a bad choice? No. Sometimes, you are out in public and can’t afford the scene. Sometimes your picky eater won’t get a chance to have anything to eat for a while and giving in to get her to eat ANYTHING is what is important. But, take your opportunities to teach choice making when you can.

The Language of Choice Making:

1. Use positive language – “You can choose.” or “This is your choice/decision.”

2. If time allows – certainly offer any information that will be helpful – “This game gives you three chances to play and this one only give you two chances.” Or.. “This is a book that someone will need to read with you, and this one is one you can read by yourself.”

3. Cost concerns may need to be stated – “The limit is $5.00, honey. So you can get one of these red ones or two of these blue ones for $5.00.” If the child picks out the item that is more than $5.00, you may need to redirect him back to the two choices and restate your guidelines.

And if she can’t make a choice?

Sometimes a child just can’t choose because she wants both things so badly. Sometimes what she really wants isn’t one of the things you have offered. Don’t lose your patience. Remind yourself this can be a learning process and this might be a very “teachable moment”. If you can afford the time, help her by listing the pros and cons of each choice and maybe the consequences of each choice. “This toy will fit into your bag so you can take it with you but this one is larger and will have to stay in your room.” Or… “This one is a book that has a lot of pictures so you can read it by yourself, while this other one doesn’t and may have to be a book we read together.” Sometimes you have to give a time limit. “Honey, you have two minutes to make your choice. After that, I will have to choose for you.”

Be prepared to make a final choice for her, but it may not go well. Remember, she has now lost power over her own decision. Hopefully this lesson of taking too long to make a choice will help her make a quicker decision next time.

Remember, this is a learning PROCESS

Most things in life get better with practice. This is no different. You and your child will have failures. But learning to make choices when your child is young and with you there to help, may help him in making those so very difficult choices in his teenage years when he is not with you and when the choices he makes can have some pretty significant, even dangerous consequen


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