I’ve encountered a lot of misunderstandings about offering children choices recently. I’m hoping a rundown might help. Today, Part 1 of 3, focusing on why and when choices are a good idea.
1. Why offer choices?
One of the most critical and valuable pieces of advice we can receive in today’s social media-saturated world is “Don’t Read The Comments.” Just don’t do it. It’s bad for your health. But, you know, if you do read the comments on parenting articles (which I sometimes do, let’s just say I do it for you so you don’t have to, I’m giving like that), you will most assuredly encounter comments bemoaning the notion that “crazy parents these days are negotiating with their kids, that’s why kids are turning out to be such spoiled brats” (or some variation on that theme).
I always read those comments with a smile, because little do they know that I, a person who is fully in favor of offering choices and democratic parenting, actually agree with them. Endless negotiation, trying to please children? I agree–bad idea. Asking your kids what they want to eat at every meal and being a short order cook when they change their minds? Not in anyone’s best interest. Offering choices about anything and everything all day long? Yeah. Not the best.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
We’re talking about responsiveness. Emotional responsiveness. We’re talking about a reasonable flexibility in parenting that allows children to tell us, with their words or their behavior, that they are wanting, needing, and are developmentally ready for more autonomy. We are not offering choices from the stance of “gosh, I don’t know, whatever they want, I just want them to be happy (or not to cry)”. We are offering choices from the stance of “I am in charge of defining the options because I have knowledge about what is developmentally appropriate, safe, or wise, and I am allowing reasonable room for them to have some input into decisions, when possible or applicable.” After all, even the most authoritarian parents let their children pick what flavor ice cream they want on a summer night. I am sure hoping you can see the difference between the two stances outlined–they seem like night and day to me.
So. Why offer choices?
Because it lets our children know that, within limits, we respect their autonomy as different people from us, with their own likes and dislikes and their own opinions–because they are.
Because it models consideration for others, something we (presumably) want for our children. When your child is in first grade, and the teacher gives them a basket of crayons to hand out, is it your wish that they will decide for every child what color(s) they should get (with the real possibility that that will mean that the kids they like will get their favorite colors and the kids they don’t like will get brown or grey)? I’m going to go ahead and guess that if you were to be a fly on the wall, that sort of passing-out-crayons episode would not be one of your proudest moments. If we don’t want that outcome, we have to model that respect and consideration for others.
And because, when children reach somewhere between 18 months and 2.5, they all enter a fully normal and predictable stage of development in which they struggle with their desire to be independent (that’s where the “NO!” comes from), while simultaneously wanting to be sure of clear boundaries and wanting to be cared for and nurtured. By the way, that stage doesn’t end shortly after it begins (it’s not a “terrible two” or a “threenager” thing,) but continues, in varying forms, throughout childhood and frankly, into adulthood. Don’t we all want to have choices? Don’t we all want to feel autonomous and be able to make our own decisions and have them respected? And don’t we all also want to feel safe and secure and cared for and adored? Yeah. We do.
Why offer choices? Because it’s part of recognizing that your child is a human being who wants to be treated like any other human being–like you, for example. Think about it this way: the only people, in our adult lives, who have no choice whatsoever about what they eat or wear each day are inmates. Surely that’s not the model that we’re emulating with our children.
2. The Other Reason We Offer Choices
So, those are all noble reasons. But there’s another one.
The other reason why offering choices is a good idea is that it’s right up there in the Top 10 of Parenting Tricks (shh, don’t tell the kids).
As anyone who has, will have, or has ever had, a child knows, it’s not always easy to help them learn the rules and norms of appropriate social behavior. Kids are not born knowing these things–they are learned. And it’s not always easy (is it ever easy?) to gain cooperation from our children in order to have them do what we, as parents, want or need them to do (get in the car, get dressed, be on a schedule, go places they don’t want to go, do things they don’t want to do). Rare is the child who happily jumps up and down in excitement shouting “YAY!” when you tell them it’s time to go to the doctor for a checkup, or when you ask them to please clean up the 1,652 legos on the living room rug. And yet these are things that have to be done–and life is a lot more pleasant for everyone when children are cooperative about the tasks before them.
Offering choices is a way to “bank on” children’s normal developmental resistance in order to make the more mundane parts of life more palatable. Offering choices is a way to harness their roaring desire for independence.
Choices are a part of respectful limit setting, and limit setting is a critical part of learning about appropriate behavior and, more importantly, one of the most important pieces in helping children to feel secure and safe and loved.
3. When should I start offering choices?
You should start offering choices at whatever point your child tells you that they are ready for or wanting choices. It’s different for every child. It is unnecessary, for example, to ask a seven month old who is starting on solid foods whether they would like bananas or peas (though you can surely offer both, and comment on or notice which one they seem to prefer, their response to the texture, etc.)–you probably want to expose them to a range of fruits and vegetables, and many children would only choose fruits, because they are sweet. At the same time, you can put both things on their plate or their tray, and see which one they choose, if you want, and in a sense, that is giving them a choice…but it’s not the same sort of choices that we’re talking about. I will explain.
What we’re talking about here is conscious choice, parent (or caregiver) controlled choice. This–or that. One or the other.
Yes, of course, our babies’ lives are filled with choices from the moment of birth. I would never advise that anyone squelch or restrict those natural choices as they present themselves–that would be the polar opposite of what I believe. Of course, a baby lies on the floor or on a changing table and makes a choice about what they will look at–your face, the leaves blowing in the wind outside the window, their hands. Of course, an infant playing on the floor has choices about what they will look at, reach for, touch, manipulate. Of course, toddlers will come into a room filled with toys or a shelf filled with books and they will make choices about what they want to play with or read. Many of us offer our child a “choice” about when they are ready to be picked up, even in the earliest weeks and months of life–that is surely a choice that is made out of respect for the child’s autonomy. All of these are natural choices, embedded in the context of regular, respectful interaction over the course of a typical day, and all of them are controlled in part by the adult’s decisions or resources, by the materials present, and by the degree to which we direct (or wait for) the child’s attention. Natural choice, including full and unencumbered freedom of movement in infancy, so they can make choices about how their bodies will move, is something that is near and dear to my heart. It’s a different topic, however, than parents offering discrete choices to toddlers, preschoolers, and older children.
When children begin to routinely object to or seem to have strong opinions about the things that we offer or provide, that is a clear sign that it might be time to begin to offer choices. If we become astute observers–for observation is the most valuable parenting skill–we will know when it is time to begin offering choices.
4. When should I not offer choices?
Ah. Great question.
The simple (and kinda obvious) answer: You should not offer choices when the request you are making is actually not a choice.
Ah, but that’s where it gets tricky.
How often do you add “okay?” on to the end of a sentence? “Time to put on your jacket, ok?” “It’s going to be time to leave for school in 10 minutes, k?” “Dinner’s ready…go wash your hands, ok?” “Walk around the pool, don’t run, okay?”
Don’t feel bad. We all do it. Especially women, but all of us, really.
Here’s the thing. When you add “ok?” to the end of a request, you are turning it into a choice. I know. Every time I talk about this, there is always a bit of eye rolling that says “No, it’s not a choice, they know I don’t really mean it as a choice, it’s just a figure of speech.” You’re absolutely right. When you say to your spouse, “Pick up another half gallon of milk when you’re at the store, okay?” you’re right, they know that you’re not actually giving them a choice. They know that you really mean the first part, and the “okay?” is a habit or a way of asking politely. But your kids, especially the young ones, do not know that. They are literal–it’s the way their brains work. You did ask them a question. They hear it as a question. And they respond as if it is a question.
Take a week. Listen to yourself when you speak. Notice how often you say it. It’s really hard to remove that ending, to unlearn that habit. If you want to make your life with young children easier, work on it. Don’t beat yourself up in the process–we all use it. But if you need incentive to get rid of it, I’ll loan you the trick I was taught more than 30 years ago:
If you are raising your children or working with children in an atmosphere of respect (which I hope you are), here’s the rule: When you ask them a question, you MUST accept their answer. If it’s a true non-negotiable, there should not be a question. So, if you add “okay?” to the end of sentences, and they answer “No!”, that answer is one you must accept. “Time to put your jacket on, okay?” “No!” And their jacket stays off. Even if it is 10 degrees outside. (I know. You don’t want that. It’s not safe. Then don’t ask. That’s the deal.) “Wash your hands after you go to the bathroom, okay?” “I don’t want to.” And you have to let it go. (Yes, I know. It’s not a choice. It’s a matter of hygiene. Right. I get it. Don’t ask them.)
The same thing goes for “Ready to go?” If you need them to leave with you, if it’s time to go, don’t give them a choice. “It’s time for us to go” or “we are leaving in five minutes” are better phrases. “What do you want for dinner?” is a killer. If they say “ice cream”, you don’t get to say “We don’t have ice cream for dinner”–because you asked. If you want to give them choices about what to have for dinner, that’s great…but an open-ended question is an open invitation. Be sure you’re prepared to accept the answer.
I know. It sounds harsh. It’s the best way possible to get yourself to stop asking questions you don’t mean to ask. Accountability. You ask, they answer. That’ll fix ya, real quick.
5. Should I offer choices with everything?
Again, simple: offer choices when you want there to be a choice, and not when you don’t.
Be attentive to whether your child is in a developmental stage and an emotional space in which they can handle having choices. Sometimes, choices make kids feel empowered and independent. Sometimes, choices make kids feel insecure and unsafe, like their parents are indecisive and don’t know what they’re doing. They always show us, through their behavior, and then their words, whether they want or can handle choices. Are they able to make the decision, or does it take them a really long time? Do they seem overwhelmed? Are they seeking more autonomy by being oppositional when you do not offer choices? This is the power of being skilled and attentive observers–we can translate behavior into information, and use that information to inform what we do.
When it comes to eating, maybe you are choosing to follow something like Ellyn Satter‘s Division of Responsibility (DOR) in order to avoid “picky eating” and have more pleasant mealtimes. One of the hallmarks of DOR is that “parents choose the ‘what'”, meaning parents choose the food that is offered. If you are seeking to follow methods like this (highly recommended, by the way!), then you do not offer choices about meals. You serve the meal you have prepared. The choices that exist – to eat or not to eat, and how much — are natural choices, already in your child’s control, embedded within the philosophy.
When we are setting limits, when behavior is clearly unacceptable, it’s not a time to offer choices…or to ask questions. We sometimes hear parents say “You don’t want to hurt that little girl, do you?” or “Don’t you want to share your cars with the little boy?” The answers to these questions are not relevant–and of course, they might, in fact, want to hurt that little girl, and they likely do not want to share their cards with the little boy. And sometimes, we offer children choices around unacceptable behavior, including to distract them from a conflict or their feelings. Clearly unacceptable behavior–especially that which harms others–merits clear unequivocal limits, not choices.
Offering choices is not about permissive parenting. It’s not about “putting the kids in charge” or “taking a back seat.” We define the choices that are provided. We decide when choices are appropriate and when we simply need to make a clear request or state what needs to happen. We notice when they’re not able to handle choices and shift to more clear statements and fewer choices. We choose to offer choices as a sign of respect for our children as individuals, with their own opinions and preferences–not in every instance, but whenever possible. Offering choices is not about pleasing children at all costs–it is about sharing our lives and homes with the children that we have brought into our families.
Refrigerator Cheat Sheet/Summary for Part 1 (right click to save and print)
Next up: Choices, Part 2:
What kinds of choices are there? How do they differ? When do you use each one? Does the wording matter? Does the tone matter?