Why do kids need choice?
Before we even get to children, let’s think about ourselves as adults. Think about how it feels to be given choices in life versus not having a say in things that are important to you. Kids are used to getting told many times a day what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. While kids are comforted by having parents guide many of their choices, having parents control everything can feel very frustrating. Just as important, kids need the opportunity to gain a sense of control and independence by having a say in decisions, making successful choices, making not-so-successful choices, and being able to learn and grow from their decisions with parental support.
We know from decades of research that an “authoritative parenting style” is associated with various positive outcomes in children. Authoritative parenting is best understood as “structure within a democracy.” In this parenting style, parents provide the structure with rules, expectations, and guidance, while allowing their children some opportunities to make age-appropriate decisions. And when the kids mess up (which will inevitably happen, sometimes), they are usually met with a supportive style rather than a punitive one, which helps the child apply learned lessons moving forward, rather than hiding their mistakes them from their parents. Forced choice is a technique that will appeal to parents who strive for authoritative parenting.
In addition to the already mentioned benefits of helping children feel empowered and safe to learn from their mistakes, forced choice is a technique that can help a parent and child get “unstuck” during moments of conflict. What in one moment has become a power struggle can be defused if a parent can think flexibly of some solutions and then offer the child a choice among possible solutions. For example, let’s say you’re running late for work/school in the morning. You put a box of cereal on the table and tell your child to eat breakfast. He yells that he doesn’t want that cereal. In that moment, you have a choice: You can press on by telling your child to eat the cereal OR you can take the opportunity to give your child a bit of choice, by saying, “Okay, sometimes I like to change up my breakfasts a little too. Would you like a piece of toast or a yogurt today?” The quick decision to take a moment to calmly give your child a choice can save ten minutes of a power struggle, trying to force him to eat his cereal.
How to Use Forced Choice
Here are some guidelines for giving a forced choice:
- For very young children (e.g., preschoolers and early elementary years), it is usually best to offer only two choices. For older children and adolescents, more choices can be offered if you sense or learn that your child can handle them.
- Any choice offered needs to be one that you can genuinely support (or at least live with!). For example, if you are going to give your child a choice to study for their spelling test now or in the morning, you must be prepared for them to pick the morning.
- If a child is given the list of choices and still will not make a decision, you can say the following: “I have given you your choices, but you are not telling me which one you want. I will give you one more minute to make a decision. If you don’t, then I’ll make the decision.” Usually, the child will then make a choice. If he doesn’t, then it’s important to follow through and make the decision for him. This may lead to a tantrum. That’s okay. It’s important that your child learn that your word has been kept.
- Sometimes kids have smart, reasonable ideas for choices and deserve to be heard. Times like these warrant comments like this: “Hey, I didn’t think of that idea. That sounds reasonable to me. Let’s do it.”
- It is okay to use forced choice during times of misbehavior. For example, a tantrum at the store can be met with the following: “You can continue to yell and we’ll go home now or you can use a calm, quiet voice here and we’ll keep shopping.” In this case, you have to be willing to leave the store immediately if the tantrum continues.
- When the child has made a choice that turns out being a mistake, an opportunity for talking about the decision and outcome should be taken. Let’s say that you gave your child the option of taking a turkey sandwich in his school lunch or taking an apple. He chose the apple but ended up hungry much earlier than usual. A situation like this provides an opportunity to say, “I’m sorry to hear that you got so hungry at school. I’m wondering if there is something else that you could choose for your lunch that would make you feel full for longer.” This is very different from, “You chose the apple so it’s your fault.” Remember, the idea is to help our kids to feel safe to come to us with their concerns and mistakes as well as empowered to make good decisions.
Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist