Children & Choices
Choices. It’s an oft heard word in the realm of child hood development. Give you child choices. And it’s true, you should. You child has so little control or power over anything that happens in their lives that allowing them to have or make choices from time to time can be a powerful boost to their self-esteem and sense of worth. They are told when to play, when to stop playing, when to bathe, when to eat, when to go to bed, when it’s time run an errand, when it’s time to go to school when it’s time to leave school and the list goes on and on and on and on. In most scenarios, they need to be told what, how and when to do something because you are the grown up and they have no self regulation. So much pressure to constantly do what other, larger people tell them to do can create a volatile situation in their emotional system. But what if you could take some of that vim and vinegar out of their system by simply allowing them choices each day?
You’re Doing it Wrong
I can hear many of you now, “But I give them choices and they never decided and it always backfires…” Guess what? You’re doing choices wrong. I used to do it wrong too. When I first started working with children I didn’t understand the power of choice and I made mistakes, a lot of them. Now I have the wisdom of a lot of years in the classroom, a lot of books read, a lot of continuing education courses take and a lot of experience with small children. You may be thinking, “There’s a right and wrong way to give choices?” Yup. There is. If you have read this far and are thinking, “Children should do what they’re told because I am the grown up. End of Story.” then this post is may not be for you, although I encourage you to read it anyway.
The number one thing you need to know about giving a child a choice is that it needs to be realistic. Sounds simple, no? Yet giving children unrealistic choices is one of the biggest parenting faux pas done daily. If you tell your child to put their coat on or they are not going to school today then you have just screwed yourself. Are you truly willing to keep them home for the day because they refused to put a coat on? My absolute favorite is when parents threaten that Santa wont come if their child doesn’t listen. Really? Are you really going to follow through with no presents on Christmas morning? I consider myself a tough cookie mom and even I won’t go that far. Parents, you cannot present an option to your child that you are not 100% willing to follow through on because the second you don’t follow through, they have your number. If you threaten to turn the car around if they continue bickering in the back seat then you better turn that car around should another argument begin. If you say you are leaving the store is they keep whining about the cookies you won’t by, then you better be prepared to leave a cart full of groceries and walk out. Each time you don’t follow through with a “threat” your child logs that in their brain. If you repeatedly do it, they know you are full of bluff and have no reason to believe you, which does nothing but spell trouble for you.
Providing a child with too many choices is overwhelming. As much as possible limit their options to two and no more than three choices. Asking a 4 year old what they want for snack is akin to opening Pandora’s box. Instead say, for snack today you can have a yogurt with fruit, or crackers and cheese which would you like? Once the choices have been given that’s it, no negotiating. If they whine and plead and throw a tantrum, let them, Once again if you give in they will smell blood and know they can pull that same trick over and over and over. A a few tantrums in the beginning is much better than a life time of stress because you taught your child they can walk all over you.
Just to clarify, this is not the same as using food for reward/punishments’ which should NEVER be done, this is saying these are your options, if you are hungry and want a snack then you will choose one. Same goes for choosing anything else, clothing, toy to take to grandmas, or a book to read at bedtime. If a matter is time conscious, such as getting dressed in the morning then set a timer and let your child know that they have until the timer goes off to make their decision, otherwise you will be the one choosing.
Pick Your Battles
Simple advice but true. Not everything needs to be done an exact way. Let go of some of your need for control. If he wants to wear red plaid shorts and a lime green shirt to school, let him. Who really cares? Plus you are giving your child the opportunity to express himself creatively. If she wants to play the trumpet instead of the flute then support her and buy yourself some earplugs for the first year or two! Some nights let them pick their own dinner, some days let them watch the extra TV show. By allowing them these small bits of choice and power their need to exert full control will relax. A child’s reaction to feeling no control is a tantrum. Think about how you feel when your boss dumps task after task on your plate with little to no input from you… it feels pretty lousy doesn’t it?
By no means should tantrums be accepted as OK behavior, but they ARE normal. Do not get mad at them for having one. Stay as calm as possible and ignore them. It will stop. I promise. Through a tantrum a child is trying to gain your attention. At this point they don’t care if it is negative or positive. DO NOT FEED THE ATTENTION MONSTER. When it is over you can talk to them about their strong emotions and brainstorm together better ways to handle it. If they are being destructive or harmful then say in a firm tone that even though they are mad “hitting, throwing, kicking etc.” is not acceptable.
To sum it all up, this is what parents need to remeber:
- Make Choices Realistic
- Be Prepared to Follow Through
- Limit Options to 2 or 3
- Pick Your Battles
- Tantrums Happen, Don’t feed the monster