We make thousands of choices every day, starting from the moment we wake up. Most of the time we go about our day unaware of all of the choices we make. It’s like we are on auto pilot. Other times we are overwhelmed by the thought of having to make one more decision and the best choice is to let others decide for us. Right now, we may be frustrated and focusing on all the decisions that are being made for us and our lack of control over those decisions.
As parents we not only spend a lot of time making our own choices, but also making choices for our children. When they are little, we make most of their choices for them. We set the general schedule, decide what they will eat, wear, watch, play with, etc. It is hard to know when and how to give them more autonomy to make their own choices and live with the consequences of those choices.
As in all things, the internet is chock full of ideas on giving children choices and chock full of judgement if you don’t do it right. A quick search led me to a huge range of suggestions and parenting styles. One extreme parenting style is to think that children should be able to make all of the choices about their lives. Their suggestion was that children had few boundaries, lots of freedom and the permission to make decisions that in my opinion are beyond their maturity to understand the consequences.
On the other end of the spectrum there are parents who micro-manage their children’s entire lives and don’t allow their children any latitude to have an opinion – much less to act on that opinion. Neither of these extremes work out well for children in either the short or long term. As in most things, a balanced approach that systematically builds decision making skills and matches a child’s maturity is most helpful when offering choices to children.
It is important to give children the opportunity to make choices. It will help them feel like they have some control in their lives and may help them be more cooperative. It will give them practice with decision making and problem solving when the stakes are low. Choices help children have ownership of their lives and help them learn how to manage themselves. It gives them a voice. Additionally, being able to make choices builds confidence. As children make choices that have good outcomes, they are able to take responsibility for those outcomes and they feel more confident.
There are some things that we as parents can do to help teach our children with the skill of making choices. First we need to make some decisions ourselves. What kinds of choices will I allow? It is still important for parents to give structure around choices and make sure that the choice options reflect the maturity level of the child. For instance a child doesn’t have open ended choices about what he is going to eat for lunch, but might have the choice between which vegetables he wants. A child isn’t allowed to decide whether or not she has to ride in a car seat, but might be allowed to decide which stuffed animal will ride with her. Another question parents need to ask themselves is how skilled is their child at making decisions currently? If your child has not had a lot of experience with making decisions, start by just pointing out decisions they do make. “You are choosing to swing.” “Look at you choosing to share with your brother.” By pointing out their choices you are raising their awareness so that when you ask if they want water or milk with lunch they are familiar with the idea that they make choices all the time.
How to go about offering choices to preschoolers.
It must truly be a choice. “Eat your dinner or you are going to bed!” is not a choice, it’s a threat.
Choices should have two positive options that you as the parent can live with. Make sure the choices you offer are ones you can agree to. Asking a child what they want for dinner may garner the answer “candy!” Opening choices up to the whole world of opportunities will often end up with us having to say “no,” and creating more conflict, not less. So, offering two positive options will always have you saying “yes!” to their choice. Lego’s or cars? Pajamas or brush teeth, which do you want to do first? Blue pants or green pants? These are all the kinds of choices parents can live with.
But what if they always want a third choice, keep changing their minds, or they take forever to make a simple two option decision? This is where you may need to step in, take a breath, provide empathy and ultimately make the choice for them. Make sure to let them know they will have another opportunity to choose later. “You seem to be having a hard time (accepting my options, sticking with your decision, choosing), so I am going to choose for you. I know it’s disappointing. You will have another opportunity to choose an outfit, snack, shoes, etc. tomorrow.” Your calm, consistent response will eventually result in your child starting to take ownership of his or her choices.
Being aware of when we can offer choices, thinking of appropriate choices and following through when it goes sideways is all hard work on a parent’s part. But it is well worth the thought and effort. It is necessary, while they are young for children to gather lots of experience at the skill of making choices. Then as they get older and the choices become more difficult and the consequences grow, we can be confident that they are well equipped with the knowledge of how to make well informed, good choices.