You hear all the time that giving choices is the way to go. But what if it backfires? Avoid these 5 mistakes parents make when giving choices.
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 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 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?”
And for good reason: When given a choice, kids gain a sense of ownership. 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?
5 mistakes when giving kids choices
I’m a fan of choices when given effectively. Giving choices reduces conflict and will help you avoid tantrums. You focus on the choices your child can make instead of the task he’s resisting.
Choices also empowers him. He can voice his opinions, making him more likely to embrace the choice he makes. He’s able to think for himself, instead of following everything other people tell him to do. He can be assertive and develop critical thinking.
And perhaps most importantly, giving choices respects him. Yes, you make most of the decisions in the house, but through choices, you remind him that you care and respect his decisions.
But 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 during the car ride.
Except at one point, she tells him that they’re going to go to the grocery, to which he replied, “What are my choices?”
Many parents will say in exasperation, “I give my child choices, but it still doesn’t work!”
While I’m a fan of giving choices, I also recognize that plenty of mistakes can crop up when we don’t apply this tactic correctly. From being ineffective to making things worse, giving choices can backfire if you make these following mistakes:
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 him a choice when there isn’t one.
Going to school, holding your hand when you cross the street, brushing his teeth—these are all habits and commitments he can’t avoid.
He must hold your hand when crossing a busy street, and brushing his teeth consistently will help avoid cavities. And he doesn’t have a choice between attending class and skipping it for the day.
Not every issue warrants a choice—often, he does need to follow the rules and fulfill his responsibilities. If you play the choice card too often, he’ll learn to expect a choice even when there isn’t one.
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2. Giving too many choices
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When given too many choices, your child suffers from the stress of choice overload. Psychologist Barry Schwartz challenges one of our most-prized tenets—freedom of choice. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, he argues that an excess of choices leaves us paralyzed and dissatisfied.
Not exactly ideal for us, much less for our kids.
Your child will deliberate over too many choices, weighing one option against the others. Then, once he chooses one, he might second-guess his final decision. He’s more concerned the choices he could’ve made instead of being happy with the one he did.
Instead, narrow his options to two to avoid inundating him with so many. “It’s time for a snack. Do you want to eat graham crackers or a granola bar?”
And if two choices aren’t possible, narrow it down as much as you can. If he’s allowed to pick four books to read at bedtime, you might say, “Pick a book 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?
Maybe it was asking him whether he wants to sleep now or an hour later, even though bedtime is in 10 minutes. Or threatening him with, “You can go with me to the grocery or stay home by yourself,” knowing that the latter isn’t possible.
Or sometimes it’s even offering an outrageous choice you assume he won’t choose, hoping he’ll opt for the other one. “You can clean up these toys, or you can throw them all in the trash” means he 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 he makes, not hope that he’ll choose one over the other. He has to clean up the toys—but he can have a choice of doing them after lunch or after nap.
And remember to follow through and honor the choice he made. Nothing’s worse than giving the 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 the apartment, doesn’t mean you have to.
An increase of choices also increases expectations. Come bedtime, your child might now expect a slew of options, from which stuffed animal to hold to which cup to drink from. Instead of expecting to go to bed at a certain time straight away, he learns to expect choices along the way.
When you inundate him with choices too frequently, he’ll come to expect a say in every decision. It almost becomes a game, a ritual: Mom says what we have to do, I get a say in how it goes.
Instead, save choices for the times when they matter. You might offer a choice for typical times he acts up, like when he has to stop using the iPad or go to bed. You can give him a choice when you sense that he feels disempowered, or about to act up.
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 he’s beyond seeing reason and instead needs to experience a meltdown. Maybe the novelty of having a choice has worn off.
And sometimes, giving choices can introduce a new level of disagreement. He might not like the choices he has, or balks at doing either one. He might even insert his own choices, defeating the point of offering them in the first place.
Instead of giving up on choices, pivot and ask yourself what he needs in this moment. Maybe it’s a good cry, or time to himself. Perhaps he’s overwhelmed with having to choose too often. Or maybe you should ask him for suggestions—you might be able to find a compromise you’re both happy with.
And finally, mirror the emotions you’d like him to have when offering choices. Barking orders, nagging or complaining will only backfire in the end.
Choices offer both you and your child plenty of benefits, especially when you avoid many of the common mistakes.
For starters, don’t give him a choice when there isn’t one. When you do, offer only two choices so he isn’t overwhelmed with too many. Make sure that they’re both parent-approved so that you’re happy with either one.
Avoid giving choices too frequently. He might expect a choice over mundane tasks you don’t even argue about, or over issues where he shouldn’t have an opinion about. And finally, don’t expect giving choices to solve everything, or give up on it just because it didn’t work a few times.
You won’t be asking him which new car you should buy. But you can still get his opinions on whether he wants to walk or ride his bike to the park, or the snack—graham crackers or a granola bar—he’d like to eat.
Get more tips:
- 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 Teach Your Kids to Make Good Choices
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