Often parents think that in order to be in charge — and to raise well-behaved children — they always need to be telling kids what to do. “Go to bed now!” “Clean up your room, or else!” “Eat your dinner!” But parents can teach children to behave while giving them options.
Why should you give your kid choices? Because it’s a win-win situation for parents and kids. Offering your child options can help avoid a power struggle (like when he’s about to have a meltdown over not getting his way). Even more important, by having to make a choice, your child is getting practice on how to make good ones — something that becomes more and more important as he gets older.
Once he becomes a teen, he’ll need to know how to make the right — and safest — choices. Luckily, it’s easy to teach and practice this important skill when they’re young. Instead of always telling your child what to do, let him be part of the decision-making process. But the trick is to offer choices you can live with — and your child is likely to go along with.
Of course, there are times when you shouldn’t offer choices — like when your child wants to dash across the street! During those times, when you tell your child he must do something (“This is not a choice”), you will be taken more seriously because he knows you usually offer choices.
Here are some times when you might want to offer your child a choice:
Getting ready for school
The school bus is coming in 10 minutes, and your daughter refuses to wear the outfit you picked out for her. This is a chance to let her take a little control. Bring her two outfits she likes and ask, “Would you like to wear this one or this one?”
Your son is refusing to brush his teeth before going to bed. You could say, “Brushing your teeth is not a choice. But you can choose when to brush them. Would you like to brush them now or after we read a story?” Or if you think he’ll choose to do it later and then refuse, try saying, “When you are finished brushing your teeth, you can either read a book or play quietly in your room for 10 minutes. Which would you like?”
Since kids often don’t want to do chores, offer a choice in a cheerful way. “OK, let’s get to work! We need to take out the trash and set the table. Which would you like to do?” When he makes his choice, say, “Great! I’ll do the other one.”
Mealtime can quickly turn into a power struggle. For example, you want your child to eat her vegetables and meat, but she just wants to eat noodles. This is the perfect time to offer choices — but with limits (you don’t want to be making separate meals for everyone).
Make sure you always serve at least one thing your child likes. If you want her to eat at least one vegetable, give her the choice before you start cooking: “We’re going to have veggies tonight. I’ll let you pick — peas or broccoli?”
Grocery shopping with kids can be very stressful. They keep asking for junky cereal and candy, and you just want to get your shopping done without the begging. But, once again, choices can be your friend! In the cereal aisle, for example, find two kinds you don’t mind your child eating and let him decide. If he insists on another, say, “That one is not a choice. Which one of these would you like?” Be prepared to walk away if he doesn’t pick one of your preferred kinds. Once he sees that you mean business, he’ll pick from what you’ve offered.
Remember: The trick when offering choices is to make sure that both choices are ones you can live with. Also, they need to be acceptable choices for your child. Saying, “You can either have Brussels sprouts or lima beans” won’t go over well if your child doesn’t like either. Or if you say, “You can either do your homework now or after dinner,” but you’re pretty sure he will put up a fight after dinner, don’t make that offer. Instead try “You can do your homework in the kitchen or at my desk. Which would you prefer?”