Offering Choices

An often-repeated tip for coping with young children is to “give them choices.”  Sometimes that works wonders…and other times it doesn’t.  It’s all in how you do it.

My grandma said that one of the most important things she learned as a parent was this: Don’t ask a child IF she wants to do something unless “no” is an acceptable answer. There’s a big difference between “Would you like to take a bath now?” and “It’s time for your bath.”  Adults tend to think that phrasing a request as a question is more polite, but to a literal-minded child it sounds like a question whose answer is up to her.  That can be discomforting for a child.  It gives the impression that the adult doesn’t know what should happen and is looking to the child to direct the situation.  When the child makes the “wrong” choice, and the adult is annoyed, the child can sense that she’s “wrong” without understanding how or why.  This doesn’t mean that parents have to bark orders all the time!  Just use a declarative statement instead of a question.

Another thing I learned about choices, in my years as a babysitter and camp counselor, is: Don’t ask an open-ended question unless all options are open. If you say, “What would you like for breakfast?” and the kid says, “Bacon and kiwi-fruit!” and you have no bacon or kiwi-fruit in the house, then you have a disappointed kid.  Much better to say, “These are the cereals we have.  Which one would you like to eat?”

Now that I’m a parent, I’ve been learning that even closed-ended choices (“Red shirt or blue?”) often are unhelpful to both parent and child.  The usual parent-magazine rationale is that getting to choose the details (which shirt) distracts a child from the fact that he has no choice about the main event (getting dressed).  There are times when that works.  But as a general strategy for getting through the day, it has pitfalls, the biggest of which is that making all those choices takes a lot of time.  A kid can get caught up in fretting over the ramifications of the blue shirt and whether the red might be better, whereas if you’d just pulled the blue shirt over his head without comment he might have kept babbling on about how he’s a Buffalo Puppy Airplane-Eater today and never worried about his shirt.  Also, sometimes even a closed-ended choice gets a kid thinking that the issue is open to discussion, and he’ll start demanding other options that aren’t available.

This leads me to the approach to choices I’ve learned since Nicholas (now almost three years old) started talking: Don’t start out by offering a choice; say what we’re going to do, and offer a choice only if he objects.

Example #1:
ME: Time to brush our teeth!
NICK: Okay.
(No choice; no problem.)

Example #2:
ME: Time to brush our teeth!
NICK: No! I’m not ready!
ME: Do you want to brush teeth first or take a bath first?
NICK: No! I want a snack!
ME: You just had a snack ten minutes ago. It’s time to get ready for bed now. Brush teeth and then bath, or–
NICK: No! I want to wash dishes! I want to go for a walk!
(Unnecessary offering of choice gives impression that many options are open and he is responsible for deciding what happens.)

Example #3:
ME: Time to brush our teeth!
NICK: No! I’m not ready!
ME: We have time to read three stories. We could read one story and then brush teeth before reading the–
NICK: No! I am playing with trains!
ME: You can play for five more minutes and have just two stories.
NICK: I can have one story downstairs on couch, and all trains will listen to story too, and then brush teeth, and then two stories in bed, and then go to sleep. Does that sound possible?
ME: Okay! Good plan!
(Choices are offered one at a time, and ultimately he tailors one of them to suit him, but I never give him total control of the situation.)

I love the way he says, “Does that sound possible?”  Not only is his precise pronunciation very cute, but he is acknowledging that he’s proposed something different from my plan and that he’s open to further negotiation.  I often take this same approach when a conversation starts with him proposing something I don’t want to do.  Together, we can choose a course of action that works for both of us.

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

5 Responses to Offering Choices

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