Most of us are familiar with the titles "If You Give a Moose a Muffin" and "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" by Laura Numeroff and how one thing leads to another. If you give your child a choice, it leads to other things as well - the development of positive life skills. Parents who offer appropriate choices to their children encourage cooperation, self-discipline and good decision-making.
People of all ages appreciate the sense of power that accompanies making a decision. Part of the sense of power is because we were asked to make a choice and that we had a right to make a choice. As adults, we make big and small decisions every day: who to vote for, cook at home or go out, pay in cash or charge it, or do the project now or later. Choices give us a sense of having some control within our environment. The same is true for children.
Children that desire more control, or feel completely out of control in their environment, will often battle, disagree and act negatively by controlling the things they can. They will gain a sense of power by kicking the dog, hitting their sibling or breaking curfew. Adults that feel out of control might respond in a similar manner.
According to Elizabeth Pantley, author of Kid Cooperation and Perfect Parenting, the keys to making choices work are:
Limit the number of choices that you give to children. Younger children can handle two choices: red shirt or yellow shirt? Peas or corn? You do it or I do it? As children get older, offer more choices: Hold, carry or wear your coat? Before dinner, after dinner or in the morning? Most teens can be given general rules and guidelines.
Try to give choices even when there is only one acceptable choice.
A parent won't say, "Do you want to go to bed tonight or tomorrow?" A parent can offer, "Do you want to go to bed in 10 minutes or 15 minutes?"
Be specific in the choices that you provide. Avoid open-ended questions like "What do you want to wear?" It may be a bitter cold January day and your 5-year-old will choose their swimsuit. Ask this instead, "Would you like to wear this outfit or this one?"
Sometimes you might give a child a choice and they will exert power and control by refusing to make one. Give them another choice, "Do you want to decide or should I decide?" Another refusal to choose means the parent will choose.
Make certain that any choices you offer are age and developmentally appropriate and acceptable to you, so you won't care what your child chooses because you are OK with all of the options. Your child will feel included and be more apt to follow through on their decision. You will avoid a power struggle.
So, go ahead and use this powerful parenting tool - the privilege of choice.
(Holly M. Arnold is the Region 2 Parent Resource Center Coordinator with the North Dakota State University Extension Service - Ward County.)