Giving children choices is a great parenting method to help your child listen and make good decisions. Here are tips on 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 he rolls around in bed playing instead of actually getting into his pajamas. He ignores what you say until you use some kind of bargain, and even pushes his brother (only to talk back when you tell him to stop).
You’ve even tried offering choices to get him to put his shoes on, but he 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 his crazy demands and wild behavior.
Here’s the thing: however defiant he might be, giving children choices — the right way (which you’ll learn here) — can drastically reduce power struggles and actually get him to listen.
Rather than telling him what to do, you give him a choice, especially for those moments when he 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 him to comply with 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”).
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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 him have a say. Follow these best practices for the most effective results.
- Offer two choices only. More choices aren’t always best. In fact, stick to two choices to make it easier for him to weigh each one and decide. Otherwise, he’ll feel overwhelmed with all the options.
- Stick to parent-approved choices. Offer him 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 for a walk now. Do you want to ride your scooter, or walk next to me?”
- Keep the choices simple. Having him make a weighty decision like what time he should fall asleep is an unfair burden on him. Instead, offer simple choices that fits within his world, like asking, “Do you want the blue plate or the 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? Focus on calming him down with non-verbal communication first (facial expressions, body language, simple 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 is by no means comprehensive, but hopefully it gives you a few ideas on how you might use choices for common and often frustration situations:
- Putting on pajamas: “It’s time to put on pajamas—do you want to wear the blue one 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 dress?”
- 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 apples or oranges 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?” (Note: This doesn’t follow the “two-choice” rule, but one way to still curb indecision is to limit the number of books he 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. Thankfully, giving choices can melt your child’s defenses, help him feel empowered, and give him more reason to follow through with the decisions he makes.
And while giving choices isn’t guaranteed to get him to listen every single time, you can increase those chances by following certain best practices. Even better: giving choices changes your relationship for the 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, after all, isn’t about punishments, but rather 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
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