Letting Children Decide (Sometimes) Can Make Parenting Easier
The 2 to 4 years can be rough; they’re a strange juncture of helplessness and autonomy in child development when toddlers become aware of their individuality and, consequently, want to assert it — yet remain completely dependent on adults. It’s this tug-of-war between wanting to be in control, yet completely lacking the necessary skills, that can turn the toddler years into a conflict zone. Typically over the most inane scenarios — at least, to you; to toddlers, all coked-out on their need for autonomy, a gentle request to put on socks warrants a call to arms.
Faced with such disproportionate reactions, it’s understandable for parents to react by either doubling down or giving up. But there’s a third, better option: Giving children choices. This parenting strategy provides the illusion of control, which satisfies the need for autonomy in toddlers and thus, mitigates conflict. It also, according to early childhood development experts, sets kids up for success by building their self-confidence, their trust in you, and even their brains.
But how you go about giving kids choices and what options you offer matter greatly. Offering the wrong kind of choice means you might find yourself arguing with a toddler even more. And even when you go about it correctly, letting your child make their own decisions doesn’t mean giving up on rules and discipline. Giving children choices is all about identifying the little things you don’t care about, but toddlers do.
Giving kids choices: How to do it right
Thought rules were just for kids? Think again. These are the hallmarks, according to early childhood development experts, of giving children choices that actually empower them (and make your life easier).
You’re the general to your toddler’s scrappy rebel. Use your decades of strategic experience: Think ahead throughout the day and identify when you can offer choices, and when you need no-nonsense cooperation. Try staggering these moments, so your child doesn’t feel overwhelmed by either; too much choice can be as overwhelming for a toddler as too many requests. If you know you need to squeeze in lunch before running to a doctor’s appointment, perhaps offer a choice around food to make the hustle and orders for getting out the door go down more smoothly.
Consistency helps kids know what to expect, so they’ll be less likely to demand a say in an area you need to be authoritative on. Perhaps you only offer choices in a few areas, like what they wear, or what toy they play with; or on certain days/times, like every Saturday afternoon, your toddler can choose whether to go to the park first and then run errands, or vice versa.
Only offer options you’re OK with.
This sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how often we don’t offer legitimate options when giving children choices. Think about it: Saying something like “Do you want to come here so dad can put sunscreen on you?” or “Do you want to clean up the nursery so we can go?” gives the illusion of a choice, when it’s not really; you’re going to slather him with sunscreen or make him pick up his toys, whatever his response. Sometimes we take a sarcastic approach — “Do you want to put your shoes on and go see grannie, or sit there and cry all day?” — which also gives the illusion of choice, though you’re not really serious about letting your toddler sit and cry.
To kids, these are opportunities to exert control. But such careless wording sets children up for making choices that are then denied, undermining both their autonomy and their trust in you, which has the effect of devolving the immediate situation and casting doubt over future opportunities for satisfying autonomy in toddlers. So, avoid yes/no questions, unless you’re truly okay with either response, and make sure you’re on board with any options offered (for instance, offering either a banana or an apple for a snack).
Limit the number of options you offer.
Too many choices can be overwhelming for young kids. Try offering no more than two to three options, or a small range: “Do you want to wear the blue shirt today or the green one?” or “You can pick any book from the first shelf.”
Make the options different.
When options are too similar, it makes it more difficult for your child to decide. It can also confuse them into feeling like they’ve not had a say. For instance, the option of departing now or in three minutes is basically the same thing to your child. Make sure there is enough difference in what you’re offering for them to feel the power of their choice.
Move at their speed.
Toddlers, for all their sudden growth and assertion, don’t have the same experience and speed at making decisions as you do; they may need to think through the simplest choice you offer. Whether to sleep with Teddy or Mr. Turtle is a strategic decision with life-altering implications at this age — and their thoughtfulness around decision-making should be encouraged. This ties in with anticipating when to offer choices: If you won’t have time to give your child the few minutes he or she may need to make a decision, it’s not the moment to offer a choice. If after a few moments, they still can’t decide, offer to help them come to a decision, or narrow the options.
Sometimes, just don’t offer a choice.
At the end of the day, you’re the parent and some things are not negotiable. Hitting other children, brushing teeth, riding in the car seat – these are all activities that you have to prevent or enforce. However, when non-negotiable scenarios turn into points of conflict, you can look for ways to give kids choices without changing the actual outcome. For instance, riding in the car seat may not be up for discussion, but you can offer your toddler a choice around how to get into it: “Do you want to get into the car seat with help, or by yourself?” Or, while throwing rocks is unacceptable, your toddler can choose what to do with the rocks instead: “Do you want to pile the rocks here, or keep them in your pocket?”
Follow these tips and you should find yourself saying “No” and arguing with a toddler a lot less, which means he’ll be more likely to listen to you when it matters. It’s a sort of pick-your-battles approach to dealing with the need for autonomy in early childhood that we think many a rebel would approve of.