Giving children choices is a great method to help your child listen and make good decisions. Includes best practices and real-life examples.
Getting kids to listen can feel like a standoff at times, don’t you think?
You need to dry and change your child after a bath, but she rolls around in bed playing instead of actually getting into her pajamas. She ignores what you say until you use some kind of bargain, and even pushes her brother (only to talk back when you tell her to stop).
You’ve even tried offering choices to get her to put her shoes on, but she just yells, “I don’t like those choices!” And like many parents, you either lose your temper and yell something you regret, or give in to her crazy demands and wild behavior.
Here’s the thing: however defiant they might be, giving children choices the right way can reduce power struggles and actually get them to listen.
Rather than telling your child what to do, you give her a choice, especially for those moments when she fights it the most.
Why giving children choices works
So, how exactly does offering choices help your child behave better?
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. And 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, especially after a long day (or months and even years of this same pattern), 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 children 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”).
Free resource: Want more tips on how to get him to listen? Join my newsletter and discover the one effective word to get kids to listen and follow instructions. Grab your PDF below—at no cost to you:
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, giving children choices 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.
- 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?”
- 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?”
- Don’t offer choices for everything. 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.
- 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 he’s 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.)
Getting kids to listen—especially daily tasks they should know by now—can be a nightmare for even the most patient parent. Giving choices can melt your child’s defenses, help him feel empowered, and give him more reason to follow through with his decision-making.
While giving choices isn’t guaranteed to get him to listen every time, you can increase those chances by following certain best practices. Even better: you’re genuinely taking his opinion seriously, all in a calm and compassionate way.
I hope this has helped you see one of the most effective ways to communicate. Discipline isn’t about punishments, but about helping him manage his emotions and behave appropriately.
Get more tips:
- How to Teach Your Kids to Make Good Choices
- 9 Ways to Avoid 2 Year Old Bedtime Tantrums
- How to Get Toddlers to Listen Without Yelling
- When Your 3 Year Old’s Behavior Is Out of Control
- How to Establish a Solid 2 Year Old Bedtime
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab your PDF below—at no cost to you: