5 Mistakes Parents Make When Giving Choices

Giving choices can be a great way to get kids to listen if done correctly. We’ll examine best practices and examples to get you started!

Giving ChoicesMy son woke up cranky, dragging himself through his morning routine. He complained about his oatmeal and lay limp as I got him dressed for the day. He balked when he had to stop assembling his puzzles so we could leave the house for an errand. And when it was time to put on a shirt, he refused.

One tactic that could work well is to say, “We’re putting on your shirt. Which one do you want to wear?”

But is it possible that giving choices can backfire? And does its effectiveness fizzle after a certain point?

5 mistakes when giving choices

I’m a fan of giving choices when done correctly. Plenty of mistakes can creep up when we don’t apply this tactic correctly. From being ineffective to making things worse, take a look at these 5 mistakes to avoid:

1. Giving a choice when there isn’t one

As empowering as having a choice can be for your child, don’t make the mistake of giving her a choice when there isn’t one.

Going to school, holding your hand when you cross the street, brushing her teeth—these are all habits and commitments she can’t avoid.

She must hold your hand when crossing a busy street and brushing her teeth consistently can help avoid cavities. And she doesn’t have a choice between attending school and skipping it for the day.

Not every issue warrants a choice. Often, she does need to follow the rules and fulfill her responsibilities. If you play the choice card too often, she might learn to expect a choice even when there isn’t one.

Child Doesn't Want to Go to School

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2. Giving too many choices

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When given too many choices, your child can suffer from choice overload.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz challenges one of our most-prized tenets—the freedom of choice. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, he argues that an excess of choices prevents us from making a decision or feeling dissatisfied when we do.

Your child might deliberate over too many choices, weighing one option against the others. He might second-guess a choice because he’s mulling over the choices he could’ve made instead of being happy with the one he did.

So, narrow the process down to two choices to avoid inundating him with so many. “It’s time for a snack. Do you want to eat a banana or an apple?”

And if two choices aren’t possible, narrow it down as much as you can. Let’s say he’s allowed to pick four books to read at bedtime. You might say, “Pick books from this pile” instead of letting him choose from the bookshelf.

3. Giving choices you don’t approve

Have you ever given your child a choice you’d never follow through with?

Maybe it was asking her whether she wants to sleep now or an hour later, even though bedtime is in 10 minutes. Or you threatened her with, “You can go with me to the grocery or stay home by yourself,” knowing that the latter isn’t possible.

Sometimes it’s even offering an outrageous choice you assume she won’t choose, hoping she’ll opt for the other one. “You can clean up these toys or throw them all in the trash” means she might choose not to clean them up to see what you’ll do.

Instead of unrealistic or farfetched choices, offer those that are parent-approved. You should be happy with either choice she makes, not hope that she’ll choose one over the other. She has to clean up the toys—but she can have a choice of doing them after lunch or after nap.

And remember to follow through and honor the choice she made. Nothing’s worse than giving a choice, only to change your mind or force your own decision.

4. Giving choices too often

Be careful about offering choices when doing so isn’t even necessary. Just because you can offer the choice of taking the stairs or the elevator each time you leave your apartment, that doesn’t mean you have to.

An increase of choices also increases expectations. When you inundate him with choices too frequently, he might expect a say in every decision. It almost becomes a game: Mom says what we have to do, and I get a say in how it goes.

Instead, save choices for the times when they matter. You might offer a choice for challenging transitions, like when he has to stop using the tablet and go to bed. You can give him a choice when you sense that he feels disempowered, or about to throw a fit.

That way, his choices bear more weight, considering that they don’t happen all the time.

5. Assuming that choices will fix everything

We can’t guarantee that choices will always work. Your child might have an off-day or in the middle of a meltdown. The novelty of having a choice may have worn off.

And sometimes, giving choices can introduce a new level of disagreement. She might not like the choices you give or balks at doing either one. She might even insert her own choices, defeating the point of offering them in the first place.

Ask yourself what she needs in this moment. She might need a good cry or time to herself. Perhaps she’s overwhelmed with having to choose too often. Or maybe you should ask her for suggestions—you might be able to find a compromise you’re both happy with.

And finally, mirror the emotions you’d like her to have when offering choices. Barking orders, nagging, or complaining can backfire in the end.

Why giving choices works

With all these mistakes to avoid, does giving your child a choice still work? Absolutely.

If you take a look at a typical day for him, I’m willing to bet that a lot of it involves adults telling him what to do. Of course, much of that is necessary—it’s your job to guide him, keep him safe, and help the day hum along on time.

Except after a while, being told what to do can wear him down. So much so that simple tasks like putting on pajamas or brushing his teeth become harder to do.

One of the best ways to break this pattern is to give him choices. In most cases, you’ll see a noticeable difference in how he responds when he gets to decide what to do, instead of only being told what to do. Giving choices is effective because:

It’s different from what your child is used to

Sometimes it’s simply the “element of surprise” that makes giving choices so effective. Braced for yet another fight, he softens and gets less defensive when he sees this isn’t going to go down the way it usually does.

He feels heard and empowered

In a world dominated by adult decisions, having a choice gives him a voice and reminds him that his opinions and input matter, too. He realizes that his decisions are valued and have an impact, especially when he sees them carried out. Instead of being told what to do, he feels empowered with a choice to decide.

He’s more likely to follow through with choices he makes

Can’t get his cooperation on simple requests? Give him a choice and he’ll be more invested in carrying them out. After all, it’s easier to blow off other people’s instructions (“Mom wants me to take a bath”) than it is our own (“I chose to use the frog towel to dry off”).

Best practices for giving choices

If you’ve tried giving choices and found that it did little to curb your child’s behavior, this section is for you. As you’ll see, it isn’t just about letting them have a say. Follow these best practices for the most effective results:

Offer two choices only

An endless stream of options isn’t always best. In fact, stick to two choices to make it easier for your child to weigh each one and decide. Otherwise, he’ll feel overwhelmed with all the options.

Keep the choices simple. Given overwhelming choices like what time he should fall asleep is an unfair burden on him. Instead, offer small choices that fits within his world, like asking, “Do you want the blue or green plate?”

Be intentional when offering choices, and do so only when needed or appropriate. Otherwise, he’ll feel like he has a choice when he may not, or when it doesn’t make sense to have one.

Stick to parent-approved choices

Offer acceptable choices where you’ll be okay either way he decides. It’s not helpful if you threaten him with, “We’re going for a walk now. Do you want to come or stay home?” when he can’t be home by himself.

Instead, you might say, “We’re going to the playground now. Do you want to ride your bike, or walk next to me?”

Determine the non-negotiable

Just as kids don’t have choices for everything, so too should you be clear about the non-negotiable.

Let’s say it’s time to eat dinner—there’s no arguing about that. But find a way to give him a choice in some aspect of the situation. You might say, “It’s time to eat dinner.” (non-negotiable) “Do you want to sit in your high chair or in your booster seat?” (choices).

Don’t offer choices in the middle of a fit

Like any parenting technique, giving choices is ineffective when your child is having a meltdown. He simply can’t process anything logical, including words.

Your best bet? Calm him down with non-verbal communication (facial expressions, body language, soothing words). Once he’s calm, only then can you talk about his behavior and offer choices.

Real-life examples of giving choices

Now that you know how effective giving choices can be as well as how to best use them, let’s look at a few real-life examples. This list isn’t comprehensive, but it can give you a few ideas on how you might use choices for common and often frustration situations:

  • Putting on pajamas: “It’s time to get dressed for bed. Do you want to wear the blue pajamas with the monkeys, or the green one with stripes?”
  • Brushing teeth: “The next step is to brush your teeth—do you want to do it yourself, or would you like me to help you?” or “Do you want to brush your teeth after breakfast, or after you change clothes?”
  • Changing into clothes: “Would you like to dress yourself, or would you like me to help you change?”
  • Putting dishes away: “Now you can put your dish away. Do you want to put it in the sink, or in the dishwasher?”
  • Putting laundry away: “I did your laundry this morning, so you’ll need to put them away in the closet. Do you want to do it after snack, or after dinner?”
  • Not wanting to eat: “It’s time to eat—do you want to sit on the bench, or in your high chair?” or “Would you like an apple or a banana after dinner?”
  • Preferring one parent: “I’m washing dishes right now. You can either have Daddy pour your milk now, or you can wait until after I’m done to do it.”
  • Leaving the house: “We’re going for a walk now. Would you like to wear your sneakers or flip flops?”
  • Cleaning toys: “Do you want me to hold the box while you put the toys in, or do you want me to help put the toys in the box?”
  • Going to bed: “Let’s read two books before going to bed. Which of these books would you like to read?” (This doesn’t follow the “two-choice” rule, but one way to curb indecision is to limit the number of books your child can choose from, like from a pile of books.)

Conclusion

Choices offer both you and your child plenty of benefits, especially when you avoid many of the common mistakes.

Don’t give him a choice when there isn’t one, and offer only two choices so he isn’t overwhelmed. Make sure they’re both parent-approved so that you’re happy with either one. Avoid using this tactic too frequently, and don’t expect that this will solve everything.

Giving choices is a fantastic way to get him to cooperate—and perhaps even get your morning routine off to a good start.

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4 Comments

  1. I am really struggling with my anger management. What if we are in a rush and we need to get dressed and go and she doesn’t want to take off her pajamas and leave the house?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      It’s definitely rough when we’re in a rush and have to get out of the house, and the kids aren’t making it any easier. One thing that really helps me is to factor in the lag time and get started earlier. Instead of giving your child half an hour to get ready, make it an hour. She won’t feel rushed, and you won’t stress about running out of time. Another thing that also helps is to give her choices between two things. She’ll feel more invested in following through when it’s her choice.

  2. Thank you so much for the tips!

    My 2.5 years old son loves to try my limits, he loves to cry, he loves to do things opposite.
    I starting to lose patience. He always says no to everything. I have to tell him “Ok, no water for you today.” And he will go and take his bottle and drink right away. If I said “Ok, no potty for you anymore.” And he will say: “I want potty!!!”

    Should I keep saying the opposite to him to make him do what I want? Or what should I do? Thank you!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      As “effective” as reverse psychology might be, it’s not sustainable nor a fair way to communicate with him. I’d try to focus on the truly important factors you want him to do so that it doesn’t seem like you’re telling him what to do all day. Micromanaging makes people start to resent what they have to do, but if you give him fewer things he must do, then it’s less overwhelming.

      You can also give him choices about the things you want him to do. For instance, if you want him to have water, you can say, “It’s time to drink water. Do you want to drink it from a sippy cup or a regular cup?”