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BLOG: Giving Kids Choices that Lead to Cooperation

Parents offer choices all the time. If choices are so easy, why do they backfire more times than not? Giving Kids Choices that Lead to Cooperation explores a better way to offer choices.

It's common for parent educators, including myself, to tell parents, “Just offer them a choice, and they’ll cooperate!”

Well, if offering a child a choice is so easy, then why does this parenting technique backfire more times than not? Why does a child scream “NO!” when given a choice instead of smiling and saying, “I’ll take that option, please.”

The reason I think choices elicit a negative response is because of the words parents use when offering the choice.

Most of the choices I hear parents offering have an “either or” attached to it. “Either you do as I say or you can have a punishment!” or “Do you want to pick up the toys or get a timeout?” or “Turn that computer off now or go to your room, you choose!”

Those types of choices and the resulting (and shockingly loud) “NO!” tend to genuinely surprise parents and make them wonder, “What’s the big deal, I gave her a choice?”

In order to offer a successful choice parents need to include a natural consequence and no threats.

Three Rules for Giving Kids Choices

The following three rules are paraphrased from Love and Logic, the people who made choices popular. 

1. Choices shouldn’t include limitless options. Two clear options are all a child can really deal with in order to make a choice. Don’t add another choice because your child suggests it. Tell him: “That was a good suggestion. These are the choices I’m offering now. We’ll try your suggestion next time.”

2. Use parent-approved choices only. Offer choices that guide your child toward the outcome you’re seeking. Make sure both options offered are 100 percent OK with you. If you offer two choices hoping your child will choose “A” instead of “B,”, your hesitancy about “B” will act like a magnet and cause your child to choose “B” instead of “A” every time.

3. Take action when a child doesn’t choose. If a child won’t choose between the apple or the cranberry juice you need to choose for her. Follow through and choose so your child comes to understand that when you offer her a choice and she doesn’t choose, the ability to choose goes away. You can say, “I know you’re upset that I had to choose the juice for you. I have another choice for you to try now. Would you like to drink what I chose for you now or not have juice right now?”

Three Sample "Choice" Conversations

The first sample conversation of the three that follow shows what it sounds like (and what happens) when there are no limits on the options. The second conversation shows how you offer two parent-approved choices, only. The third conversation offers a reward as the choice. I’m not a big fan of rewarding, but many parents do like to reward children for cooperating, and this is a good example. (Clear choices can be used to accomplish many things in parenting, some of which are explored in my online skills e-class. For examples on which situations words best for choices check out my book.)

1. Don't Give Limitless Possibilities

Dad: “Make a choice about what you want to drink.

Child: Coffee!

Dad: Come on, we’re in a hurry! You know you can’t have coffee! Choose again!

Child: A latte.

Dad: (beginning to get mad and threatens) Make the right choice or get nothing!”

2. Do Give Parent-Approved Choices Only

Dad: “Would you like apple juice or milk?

Child: I want coffee.

Mom: Nice try, I’m only offering juice or milk.

Child: (refuses to choose)

Mom: I see you’ve chosen not to choose. (To waiter) He will have juice.

Child: I don’t want juice.

Mom:  Sweetie, you didn’t choose, so I had to choose for you. Here’s another choice, you can choose to drink the juice or not drink it. We have to go.”

3. Consider Offering a Choice of Rewards

Mom:  “I need for you to clean your room today. Here are your choices: clean your room and you can watch a movie with me, or clean your room and you can stay up 15 minutes later.

Choices are powerful tools for kids. Remember these three tips: two options only, use only parent-approved options, and choose for your child if he won’t make a choice. Otherwise, giving your child a choice can easily cause the power struggle you were hoping to avoid in the first place.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Discipline Consciously and Become the Parent You Want to Be.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ryan Foland April 16, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Hi Sharon, What a great article, and practical advice! I have a question for you regarding this concept of "choices" when it comes to children's emotional states? I have seen parents struggle with getting their children to calm down, or get motivated, or to snap out of a bad mood etc. I have not had a chance to read your book yet, but I am curious of your insight on specific ways that parents can use more strategic "choice options" for behavioral situations. As a Karate Teacher and private Bully Tutor I have had lots of exposure to keeping kids focused and motivated, and I like the structure that you lay out for parents, and believe that addressing how to help children with their "emotional" choices would be valuable. I look forward to your thoughts on this. Ryan Foland www.BullyBusterOC.com
Sharon Silver April 17, 2012 at 06:48 PM
The choices you'd use when a child is emotional begins with the understanding that asking a child to "stop" being emotional is not on the table. What is on the table is asking a child "what they need" in order to stop being emotional. You'd reword this so it's age appropriate and ask,"How can I help you get your needs met." The un-met need is at the root of the emotionality. A child, as you well know, uses his or her emotions to express what's too difficult to put into words at her age. The emotionality is the outcome, the unmet need is the root. The choice sounds like this. Mom: "Do you need to breathe or walk around to calm down?" Child: "NO!" Mom: "Do you need a hug or a back-rub?" Child: (crying) "A hug." Mom: (after a nice long hug) "When you're ready please use a calm voice and tell me what's going on, or you can whisper it in my ear." Child: (still crying) "Whisper now." I hope this helps. May I use some of or all of your wonderful question as the basis of an article? Of course giving your credit and including your url? Sharon ~ Proactive Parenting
Ryan Foland April 17, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Hi Sharon, you are welcome to use the question as a base for an article, and I think it is a great topic. I have talked with many parents who seem to use their "gut" instincts when trying to calm their children down, or simply try to motivate them. I think that your insight, and by giving practical conversation break downs is really helpful. I would be interested in talking with you more on specific skills that parents can arm themselves with to help their children control emotional reactions in social settings where the parents are not there. As you know I educate kids and parents about Bullying Prevention through my Bully Buster Workshops (www.BullyBusterOC.org), and I am always excited to look for new ways to help kids deal with the issue. In your article, maybe you can explore how kids understanding of "choices that lead to cooperation" could help them on the playground? Age group specific, maybe you can lend insight as to what ages of kids could themselves take on the "parent" role of sorts when trying to help their peers who may be picked on or bullied, or even better, dealing directly with bullies, trying to see through the "emotional" inability to communicate their feelings. We may be on to something here! I am excited to see what you come up with, and if you want to talk offline or co-author an article or get more of my insight and thoughts, I would be happy to help! Ryan Foland - Bully Buster OC
Sharon Silver April 18, 2012 at 05:37 PM
Thanks Ryan. Your comment is such a great concept for kids. I've always believed in the idea of classroom as a community. Armed with the right sample conversations your idea could be something to look at. I will contact you off line hopefully next week. Sharon ~ Proactive Parenting

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