Giving your child choices is a great way to help them feel empowered and independent, which helps them move confidently into handling more responsibility as they grow. Parents who give their child choices signal that they have confidence in them, which helps build their self-esteem. When you say,” You can decide”, it sends a powerful message of trust. “I trust you to make a thoughtful decision. I don’t need to be the boss over you, because I know you can think things through, and that you have good judgement.” By handing age-appropriate decisions over to them, they also get the practice they need in learning about outcomes. Since choices lead to consequences, it helps them learn what happens if they decide to handle a problem in a particular way.
Although there are many good reasons to use this approach with your child, it’s also important to remember that choices have to given to children in a thoughtful way. Too many choices or inappropriate ones can backfire or create feelings of being overwhelmed. Here are some things to consider when presenting choices to your child.
Always Keep Choices Age-appropriate
Although young children may have a limited understanding of how the world works, they can still make choices about things they do understand. If a child is under the age of three, it is helpful to offer choices between two concrete things. “Do you want to wear your track pants to daycare or would you rather wear your skirt and tights?”
Older children have a better understanding of the world around them. Give them open-ended choices. “Why don’t you step outside and see how cold it is? Then you can decide which jacket you’ll need.” This kind of choice helps them develop good judgement about caring for their own bodies.
Teenagers need a lot of practice in making decisions and dealing with consequences as they get closer to adulthood. This is why it’s important to negotiate decisions with teens. Discussions should take place that lead to agreements that you and your teen are comfortable with. “Let’s discuss together what time your weekend curfew should be.”
Use Choices to Defuse Power Struggles
It is human nature to dislike feeling controlled, and most of us would always prefer having a choice. If you are used to giving your child directions and commands, try replacing them with choices. You may find you get better cooperation when your child feels she/he has a choice. Sometimes, a choice is implied simply by the words you choose.
“Dinner is ready. It’s on the table.” (The child is not told what to do, therefore it is implied that they have a choice.)
“Would you like to have a big piece of shepherd’s pie or a small one?”
“Are you ready to put your toys away now or would you like to do it after you have your snack?”
“It’s time for us to leave now. Would you like to get in the car by yourself, or should I help you?”
Explain consequences clearly and accurately
Your child will inevitably make some poor choices along the way but this will help them develop good judgement in the long run. View these moments as learning opportunities and allow consequences to happen provided they are not dangerous or going to cause severe hardship for your child. Your job is to sound the warning bell with a clear, accurate description of what consequences they can expect. Then it’s up to them to figure out what they want to do.
“If you decide not to practice your spelling words, you might not be ready for your test on Friday.”
“If you decide to stay up and read past your bedtime you might be tired tomorrow morning.”
“If you decide to not finish your dinner, you might get hungry later.”
Choices shouldn’t interfere with the rights of others
Children shouldn’t have the impression that they are free to choose whatever they want without considering how it will impact the rights of others. Life never gives us unlimited options so it’s best to try to present reality as it really is. Instead, they have the right to make certain choices within reasonable limits. For example, a parent may decide what to cook for dinner, but the child can be given the choice of how much he wants to eat, or even if he wants to eat it at all. The child should not be given the choice to have his parent make a completely different meal for him. That kind of choice would not be considerate of the parent’s time and work.