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.
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.