You hear all the time that giving kids choices is the way to go. But what if it backfires? Here’s when and how to offer choices effectively.
My son woke up cranky, dragging himself through his morning routine. He complained about his oatmeal and lay limp as I got him dressed for school. He balked when he had to stop assembling his puzzles so we could leave the house on time. And when it was time to put on a jacket, he refused.
One tactic that could work well is to say, “We’re putting on your jacket. Which one do you want to wear—the red one or the blue one?”
And for good reason: When given a choice, kids gain a sense of ownership. Suddenly, putting on a jacket doesn’t seem like Mom’s Terrible Idea I Must Rebel Against. Instead, they get to decide that for today, they will wear the blue jacket.
But is it possible offering choices will backfire? And does its effectiveness fizzle after a certain point?
Now imagine a mom so taken with offering children choices. She saw the immediate positive responses when she’d ask her son what he’d like for a snack. She also asked if he wanted to play on the slide or on the seesaw before leaving the park. Then it was what music he wanted to listen to at home.
But at one point, she tells her son they’re going to the mall, to which he replied, “What are my choices?”
Why giving kids choices doesn’t always work
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When we inundate our kids with too many choices, they come to expect a say in every decision. It almost becomes a game, a ritual: Mom says what we have to do, child gets a say in how it goes.
Kids don’t always have a choice
My son has to go to school every morning—no choice in that. He has to eat dinner, brush his teeth, and take a bath—no choice in that either.
If we play the choice card too often, we lead our kids to expect choices even when there is none.
When choices aren’t necessary
Be careful about offering choices when doing so isn’t even necessary. Your child wants or expects to leave the house every morning. Asking him whether he wants to take the stairs or the elevator every day is a question you didn’t need to ask.
And when given too many choices, kids suffer from the stress of choice overload. Psychologist Barry Schwartz challenges one of our most-prized tenets—freedom of choice. He argues that an excess of choices leaves us paralyzed and dissatisfied.
Not exactly ideal for us, much less for young kids.
Too many choices makes us second-guess our final decision. We waste our time from weighing one option against the other. And it makes us wonder how happy we are with the choice we made (versus the choices we could have made).
Choices won’t always work
You also can’t guarantee that choices will work. At first, choices still seem new and kids are more likely to comply and embrace their choice.
But choices can also introduce a whole new level of disagreement. Kids may not like the choices given and still balk at doing either. They might insert their own choices, defeating the point of offering choices.
An increase of choices also increases expectations. Kids won’t accept that they have to go to bed by a certain time. Instead, they now expect a slew of options before the necessary gets done.
They might expect a choice of which stuffed animal to hold, and which cup to drink from, and which books to read. Instead of the expectation that they go to bed at a certain time, they learn to expect a choice when to do so.
When offering choices can still be effective
I’m still a fan of choices when given effectively. Giving choices reduces conflict. I’ve avoided tantrums by focusing on the choices my son can make instead of the task he’s resisting.
Choices empower kids. Under the rule of adult decisions, kids can voice their opinions through choices. It’s no wonder they embrace their choices. With parents directing their lives, they celebrate the choices they’re able to make.
Offering choices also encourages kids to think for themselves. They don’t just follow everything we say. Giving them choices allows them to be assertive and develop critical thinking.
Perhaps most importantly, giving choices respects our kids. We recognize that we make most of the decisions in the house. But we also hand them the choice because we care and respect their decisions.
We won’t ask them which new car we should buy. But we can still ask them for their opinions on which park we can go to, or which snack they’d like to eat.
How then, can we effectively offer choices while keeping their negatives to a minimum?
How to effectively offer choices
- Keep options parent-approved. Asking if your child wants to sleep now or an hour later may not be realistic if you know he needs to sleep soon.
- Narrow their options. I offer two options so my son isn’t inundated with so many. Aim for two, and if that’s not possible, narrow it down as much as you can (“Pick a book from this shelf”).
- You’re the adult. At some point we have to put our foot down when choices aren’t heeded. Sometimes kids aren’t satisfied with choices, or add their own, or ask for them when there is no choice. We don’t and shouldn’t have to succumb to their whims or make them happy.
- Mirror the emotions you want them to have. When offering choices, do so in the same way you’d like your kids to act. Barking orders, nagging or complaining will only reflect on their emotions.
When used properly and sparingly, choices offer kids and parents all sorts of benefits. Kids feel respected and empowered, and we avoid yet another meltdown.
But used too often, or giving too many choices, can actually impede your goals. Your child tries to negotiate too many choices. The slew of choices frustrates your child instead and doesn’t give him the freedom to choose.
When deciding to offer choices, use your best judgment. Will doing so help the situation and benefit both you and your child? Or will it simply establish a new expectation, one filled with choices galore?
Because sometimes, offering choices may not always be the best choice.
Get more tips about parenting and your child’s behavior:
- The Difference between Rules and Responsibilities
- What to Do When Your Child Says No to Everything
- Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child
- Parenting Mistakes: Judging Your Child’s Emotions
- How to Get Your Child to Listen to You
How do you use choices in your interactions with your kids? When do they work—and when do they not work? Share your experiences in the comments!