Chapter 5: Choices

Did you know that the “typical” child complies with a request 7 out of 10 times?  Did you also know that a “typical” toddler says “NO” five times every hour? It may feel as if these “typical” children are deliberately pushing our buttons.  According to David Elkind, a child who appears to be strong-willed is actually striving to establish himself as an independent and unique person, separate and different than his parents and other adults.  Erik Erikson asserts that children need to feel a sense of control in order to develop healthy personalities.  How do we as adults assist children, nurturing this sense of control without becoming involved in a power struggle?  We offer children choices.

Sue Grossman, assistant professor of early childhood teacher education at Eastern Michigan University says:

“The wise teacher understands that children make choices all day long, whether adults want them to or not.  They choose to obey, ignore, or defy rules and directions and determine for themselves whether to speak kindly or angrily to others.   They decide whether school or child care is a good place to be.  Our task is to provide children with appropriate, healthful options and help them to make and accept their choices.  In this way, we are developing confident, independent children who feel in control of themselves.”  (To read her entire article, see:  Early Childhood News, “Offering Children Choices:  Encouraging Autonomy and Learning While Minimizing Conflicts” by Sue Grossman, Ph.D.)

When given choices, children are:

  • practicing independence. It is important that children have a feeling of control.
  • developing positive self-esteem and emotional confidence.
  • developing problem-solving skills.
  • learning about the needs and desires of others.
  • building a sense of responsibility.

Patti Cancellier, Parent Educator at the University of Michigan, contends that choices are a way to give children positive power with expectations.  Instead of thinking “How do I get this child to do what I want?” rephrase it to, “How can I help this child be successful I this situation based on his/her current needs?”

Three guidelines for offering choices to children:

  1. Focus the choices on what you want the child to do.  (For example:  if it is time to get dressed for school, offer choices such as:  “Would you like to put on your pants first or your shirt first?”)
  2. Offer choices that are real and meaningful to the child.  (For example:  “You may choose to read a story before bed or sing a song.”)
  3. Both choices should be positive. (For example, “Will you pick up the blocks first or the animals?” gives the child two positive choices, where “Pick up the blocks or go to time out” indicates a threat and is punitive in nature.)

One caveat:  when offering a choice, be ready to honor the choice.  In other words, refrain from offering a choice such as “Are you ready?” since the child can choose to say “No.”  This can quickly digress into a power struggle.

So, how to offer choices??  Try the “Give Me Five” Approach.

  1. Breathe.  (Take a deep breath.)
  2. Make sure you have your child’s attention and (in a positive, up-beat voice) say, “You have a choice!”
  3. State the two choices clearly and simply:  “You may pick up the blocks first or the animals first.”  (Notice both choices are focused on cleaning up.)
  4. Ask the child for a commitment.  “Which do you choose?” or “What works best for you?”
  5. Notice the choice.  “You did it!  You chose to pick up the blocks first!”  (You may have noticed that the phrase “Good job” is missing.  Try using “You did it!” or “Way to go!”)

Offering choices to children during their calm, cooperative times sets them up for greater success during less calm, “heat of the moment” times.

As with any aspect of a loving guidance approach, patience, persistence, and practice are the three crucial “p’s!”  Give it a try…you can do it!


Our blog will continue in February, when we will be discussing Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Chapter 6:  Encouragement:  Honoring Your Children So They Can Honor You.  In the meantime, practice, practice, practice.  And, as always, feel free to post questions you may have about the topics discussed.





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