Offering children choices

How many choices did you make today? What to wear? What to eat for breakfast? Did you choose to shower first or brush your teeth? What did you choose for lunch? Who did you choose to see or talk to today? Now, think about your child’s day. How many choices did he or she make? If you said “not many”, you are not alone.

Although many parents know the importance of giving children choices, the reality is: “life gets in the way”, as many parents say.

“It’s impossible in the mornings! I’m always running late and it’s so hard to patiently wait for my children to select what colour socks to wear or just how many shreddies and cheerios they want in their bowls!”

 “I recently promised my friend’s child a ‘play-date’ with my son, but then my son didn’t want to play. I felt terrible to disappoint my friend, so I bribed my son to go.”

 “When my son has shouted at me and my husband non-stop, I don’t want to give him what he wants, he’ll think he’s the boss!”

Yet, offering children the opportunity to make choices is fundamental to their social and emotional development. It gives children:

A sense of control: Children experience a desire for autonomy and independence from a very young age. Of course, small children are still very much dependent on adults. But, there are many things that they can choose – what to wear; what to play with; which book to read; and so on – and, in doing so, they will develop a growing sense of autonomy and control over their lives. They will have the opportunity to practice important life skills of independence, responsibility, and self-reliance.

The capacity to be independent thinkers: Giving children the opportunity to think and act for themselves means they are less likely to be to overly influenced by their peers as they grow.

Greater self-esteem: Each and every time children are offered a choice, a message is conveyed to them: “I value your opinion, I respect you, I trust you have the competence to make this decision”

Problem solving skills: Children who are offered choices have to engage in a process of problem solving. They have to consider the following questions: What options do I have? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Which shall I choose? How will I cope with the consequences?

The capacity to accept responsibility: Indeed, when children do make their own choices, they are also learning to take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions, some of which may be feelings of disappointment or sadness. A child, for example, who chooses to read before dinner may need to accept a feeling of disappointment that they didn’t get the chance to do any craft activity that day.

More positive connections with others: When children’s behaviours are constantly directed by adults and their opportunities to be independent are reduced, there is likely to be an increase in rebellious behaviour and feelings of resentment and anger. It is not unlike being ‘micro-managed’ at work – it can feel stifling and frustrating, and can lead to friction between you and the manager. Children who are given choice are given freedom; they experience more positive emotions, and have less reason to rebel or fight.

How to offer choices in 5 steps 

1. Give a choice! This may be stating the obvious, but it can take a while to get used to using ‘choice language’. “Let’s put the game away now, okay?” or “Do you want any fruit?” are not choices. They are questions that invite children into battle with a firm, and at times predictable, “no!” Instead, you can ask: “Do you want to put the game away before or after your dinner?” and “Do you want an apple or a pear?”

2. Limit the choices you offer: Too many choices can be confusing and anxiety provoking for children. Offering just two or three options (all with equal weight) makes it easier for children to select. This is not unlike the difficulty choosing what meal to order in a restaurant when the menu has too many options!

3. Eliminate the unacceptable: Only offer choices that you feel comfortable with. Be clear with yourself and your children about what areas are ‘no choice’ areas. Try to help your children understand the reasons for this. When children experience the freedom to make choices on a daily basis, there will likely be less of a battle at times when you need to set boundaries. You can also offer them a choice within the parameters of your decision. For example: “Do you want to do your reading on the sofa or at the table?”

4. Invite children to consider alternative options: In some situations, particularly with older children, it can be empowering to ask your child if they can think of any other options. This also teaches them skills in conflict resolution and negotiation.

5. Practice patience: Decision-making is a skill that even adults struggle with at times. It requires weighing up pros and cons, thinking ahead, and managing feelings of uncertainty, anxiety or disappointment. Give your children the time and space to make their choice (even if it means waking up a little earlier each morning!) and if you see they are struggling, support them through the decision-making process rather than make the choice for them.

Above all, trust in your child’s growing capacity to make autonomous choices, and remember that battles for independence – however challenging – are a healthy part of your child’s social and emotional development.