Our long term goal as parents is to raise independent, productive adults. We want our children to be able to grow up, move away and function well on their own. Giving children choices develops their internal voice and their decision making process. Kids who know how to make good decisions have fewer problems in life and more successful outcomes.
A child is able to make choices as soon as those little arms and hands can reach for something, usually around three months. “Do you want this pink binky or that yellow binky?” “Do you want the blankie or the pillow?” “Do you want this elephant cookie or the lion cookie?” The child begins thinking about what to choose. At the toddler stage, giving choices can maintain your sanity. Because while your child is busy thinking about the choices given, he is not thinking about how to resist or oppose you. Catherine was 18 months old and wanted to eat at the kitchen counter on one of the bar stools. I knew that choice would have an unhappy ending with her falling off the stool. I wanted her in her highchair but I didn’t want to argue about it. So I began giving her a rapid series of choices – “Do you want this bib or that bib?” “The cup with the handles or the sippy cup?” The plate or the bowl?” “The fork or the spoon?” “Do you want milk or juice?” “The ham or the turkey sandwich?” By her focusing on what she was going to choose, I was able to have her in her highchair and buckled in without her noticing and screeching. Lunch went very peacefully.
In elementary age children, making choices continues to develop their internal voices, “If I choose this, what will happen?” “If I choose that will I be sorry?” The more the parent tells the child what to do, when to do it, how to do it, why to do it, etc. the louder the external parental voice will be. When children arrive at middle school age, they become more peer oriented and tend to shut off the parental voice. But if the child shuts off that external parental voice, and has no internal voice to listen to, whose voice will have more power? That’s right. The voices of their peers because the child exchanges one external voice for another. We want our children to have their own strong internal voices to protect against peer pressure and poor decisions.
I thought that making choices came naturally and that by adulthood anyone would know how to make good choices. But I learned otherwise. In one of my parenting classes, a young Indian mother told me how she was raised in India where controlling parents are the norm. One day, her mother, uncharacteristically, allowed her to choose a toy at the store. The daughter was thrilled. The mother shared that experience with her friends who became quite alarmed and told the mother, “You let her choose a toy! The first thing you know, she’ll want to choose her own husband!” And that frightened the mother so much, she took the toy back to the store and that was the last choice her daughter made. Now grown up, she was living in America with her arranged marriage husband and two little sons. She told me that it had taken her some time as an adult to learn how to make choices and she had made quite a few bad ones before she got the hang of it! So she wanted to raise her sons differently.
Learning that from her was such a gift to me because, I had assumed choosing was a natural process and not skill based. But I was raised by parents who gave choices so I had had a lot of experience in childhood. We want our children to practice making choices when the price tags attached to those choices are small.
Giving our children choices is our part of the control – we choose the choices! We never give choices when the child is in danger. But there are opportunities for choices all day long: “The bus is coming in ten minutes – are you wearing your pajamas to school or are you going to hurry and get dressed?” “Would you prefer peanut butter or ham and cheese for lunch?” “What works best for you – doing your homework before dinner or after?” “Would you prefer to clean up your room, or clean the kitchen so I’ll have time to clean your room?’ “Would you like a bedtime story or a song?” “Do you want to race or ride piggy back to bed?” “Would you like the door closed or cracked?”
There are literally hundreds of choices a day to pick from. The more you practice giving choices, the better you will become at it. Just as making choices is a skill, giving choices is too! A choice must not be a threat, such as, “You can either clean your room or lose your TV privileges.’ Also, be sure to pick two choices you can live with and are willing to allow the consequence for.
Parents want children who can think for themselves, are immune to peer pressure, and can ask themselves, “Is this a good idea for me?”
Next time we’ll look at consequences as an opportunity for child development.
Abbie Vianes, MA, BCC, CSAPS
Abbie has been a certified Love and Logic trainer for over twenty years. She is a nationally Board Certified Life Coach, has a master’s degree in Professional Counseling, and is a Certified Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist. Abbie is a facilitator for seven parenting, marriage, family, and communication strengthening courses.