Roots and Wings: Giving Choices and Setting Boundaries

I often write about the importance of giving children choices.  They are struggling with a need to feel powerful in a world that often makes them feel powerless.  Being able to take control and make their own choices gives them that powerful feeling, meaning they feel less compelled to seek out power in negative ways like tantrums or fighting.  Children also need to be offered choices to give them practice making decisions and experience handling consequences as life skills.  Giving children choices is important.  But it is also important to recognize that as adults, we need to be clear in setting the boundaries for those choices.

Life is Full of Choices

Any time we offer a choice to a child, we have to be willing to accept it.  Nothing ignites the wrath of a child like having a choice taken away.  (This is why sarcasm and “bluffing” don’t work so well when it comes to child guidance.)  When we offer a child a choice, we need to offer that choice within the boundary of what we feel is acceptable.

A simple example could be:

It’s slushy outside!  Would you like to wear your snowboots or your rainboots?” rather than “Would you like to put on your shoes?” The first choice outlines acceptable choices, where the second choice gives no boundaries.  Your child could simply say,”No thanks!” or come running back to you with a pair of flip-flops on. 

It’s fairly easy to see how to frame choices within boundaries, when we think about the dichotomous choices throughout a child’s day: “Do you want to wear the red pants or the blue pants?” “Do you want to eat oatmeal or yogurt?”  “Do you want to read first or brush teeth first?”  Offering these simple choices throughout the day is doing a great service to our children.  But in reality, life is full of choices – Hit or share? Run or Walk? Color on the paper, the wall, the piano, or the table? – and children need to know their boundaries for those choices as well.

Little Scientists

One common complaint that I hear about young children is that “they’re always testing my limits“.  This is a frustrating thing, to be sure, but it’s really a good thing.  Children are natural scientists.  They are hard-wired to learn.  They form questions and test hypotheses.  They want to know what the boundaries are, and so they make a guess and test it out.  You’ve seen that scientist face they make, that side glance they use to try to monitor your reaction without giving away their secret scientific study. 

As every good scientist knows, results have to be replicated.  You can’t just get a result once, and accept it!  Young children have mastered this scientific truth.  No playing in the toilet?  OK.  Well, this is a different toilet.  Can I play in this one?  How about this one?  What about on Tuesdays?  What if I’m wearing purple?   Will Dad let me do it?  How about Grandma?

When do scientists stop running tests?  When they get enough consistent results to lead them to believe that every future test will end the same way.   I wish I could give you a magic number, say that if you are consistent 3 times, your child won’t push it again.  But I can’t.  Some children are more rigorous scientists than others.  Some can draw a broad conclusion from one “study”.  Others want to explore every possible angle before arriving at a conclusion.  I can tell you this though.  The number of times they need to get a different response before starting the experimental process all over again is: 1

We’ve all been there.  Absolutely no eating in bed is a hard and fast rule.  Then Hattie gets sick and you’re so desperate just to get her to eat something that you let her eat in bed.  Just. This. Once.  But guess what Hattie says the next time you tell her no eating in bed?  “But you let me last week!”  Now, I’m not saying you should never bend the rules.  You just have to know that when you show inconsistencies in your boundaries, you’ll start that experimental process all over again.  (Luckily, if you were consistent before and consistent after, children tend to move through that scientific process much more quickly.  But they still have to try it.  At least once.)

They really do push your boundaries, because they want to know where those boundaries are.  Believe it or not, for as much as children want to make choices, they also want to know that ultimately you will take charge.  They want to know that they are safe to explore and experiment and test because they know they can trust you to intervene and keep them within safe boundaries. 

Sometimes, when I hear that a child’s behavior is “out of control” I question whether that is because the child feels out of control due to a lack of boundaries.  The child may be testing again and again just waiting for someone to finally step in and say, “This is the limit.”  This of course doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily thank you for your gallant act.  They’ll still likely throw that tantrum or get that pouty look going.  But they’ll know they can trust you.  Just think of their disappointed reaction as one last test of the strength of the boundary.  With time and consistency, the strength of the boundary increases and the strength of your child’s negative reaction decreases.

Parents who offer their children a lot of choices are sometimes accused of being passive parents, not taking charge, or not “being the parent”.  In reality, these accusations have nothing to do with offering choices, and everything to do with setting boundaries.  When you teach a child how to make choices within boundaries, you give them one of the most important social lessons they can learn in life. 

(Originally posted October, 2010.)

For more on giving choices and setting boundaries, check out my ebook Parenting with Positive Guidance (and until Sunday you can use the code CREEK to get it for just $8, thanks to Willow Creek Pediatrics).

Top photo by Michaela Kobyakov.

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19 Comments

Filed under Positive Guidance and Social Skills

19 Responses to Roots and Wings: Giving Choices and Setting Boundaries

  1. Karen

    Your posts are always so relevant to my life as a preschool teacher and as a mother of 3 boys – ages 7(with special needs, so he’s like a 4 or 5), 4 and 2 1/2. Thanks and keep up the fabulous work!

    • notjustcute

      Thanks so much, Karen. I’m always so pleased to know that what I share is meaningful to others. Thanks for reading!

  2. amy

    Two things come to mind. One, I really don’t like choices that aren’t choices–it’s very unfair to the kids. I do believe in giving my kids control over as many things as possible, but I also don’t want to insult them by giving them non-choices disguised as choices. (I’m not saying that’s what you’re advocating, this post just brought it to mind in the overall discussion of giving kids choices.) If something isn’t negotiable, I’m not going to pretend it is by giving a non-choice. On the other hand, the advice in Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne not to overwhelm our children or ourselves with choices really resonates with me. Children whose lives are overfull with STUFF–closets full of clothes, multiple pairs of shoes, gazillions of toys–can’t possibly make choices. *I* can’t make choices that way, either. (When my very basic cell phone broke and I needed another, my husband tried to show me pages of options, and I just kept saying, it needs to make calls and take calls and that’s about it. Stop showing me all this stuff!) My kids have one pair of sneakers, plus a pair of snow boots in winter and sandals in summer. Weather dictates the shoe choice, for the most part. One winter coat, one spring/fall coat. Etc. When we keep the environment as simple as possible, the choices are naturally limited.

    • notjustcute

      Great points, Amy. Too many choices becomes overwhelming and exhausting for kids and for many adults (myself included). And there are often times we unintentionally offer choices that are not choices – particularly when we either don’t give a boundary for the choice, or the choice is actually a vieled threat. There are many times when offering narrow choices (that may seem like there isn’t really a choice) is very helpful, particularly with strong-willed children. For some personalities, if you try to tell them what to do (“We’re leaving the park now”) they are in continual battle mode. Sometimes creating a choice where it seems there isn’t one, gives them the power they want while keeping within the boundaries you need (“We need to leave the park. Would you like to go now or in 5 minutes?” Which I usually follow up with, “OK, so in 5 minutes when I say it’s time to go, what are you going to do?”). Not every child needs this, but it can be a helpful tool with particular temperaments. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insight!

  3. Norton

    “Do you want to eat the brocolli or carrot?”

    “No!!”

    Choices still need to be appealing, and other enticements may be required as deterrents hardly work.

  4. What a great and timely post!

    My almost 3yo is a rigorous scientist who will test and retest and retest the boundaries in any and every different kind of ‘condition’ or circumstance. But, yes, consistency is really a fantastic tool with which to manage this insistent boundary-pushing. I have to say though, that I have found, if you are generally consistent, doing something different occasionally, giving a different response, is managed by children as a one-off and it shows them that as humans, we are not always consistent. I read somewhere that parents are allowed to sometimes be inconsistent because it teaches children an important lesson about human nature and also teaches them to be able to manage change. But you’re right, you need to proceed and follow up any ‘different’ response with consistency for any lesson to be effective. My oh my, this child-rearing thing can be a minefield but if you go with your gut most of the time you get it right. I know exactly those moments I act ‘against’ my gut instinct and if I don’t manage it well, things can get awfully tough!

    Thanks again for the great post.

    • notjustcute

      Good point, Francesca. As important as consistency is, children also need to learn flexibility. Finding the right balance is certainly a tricky job!

  5. Morrie

    As a teacher, I find this post especially helpful in the classroom. I generally give my students the most choice when it comes to their behavior, “you can choose to return to your seat or receive a consequence for not following instructions the first time.” This technique is especially helpfully for several of my students who struggle to monitor their own behavior. For the most part, these students choose the lesser consequence. I still haven’t figured out quite what to do for the student who chooses no response/alternate response, for example, loitering in one spot or crawling under their desk. Any advice?

    • notjustcute

      Sometimes it helps to restate the boundaries. If a child chooses an unsatisfactory alternative I usually say, “That isn’t one of the choices” and then I restate the boundaries. If the alternative is acceptable I say something like, “I didn’t think of that one, but it would work because….” (show how it fits within the boundaries/needs). If they don’t choose I usually say (in a non-threatening voice) “If you don’t want to choose, that’s OK. I’ll choose for you.” Most kids would rather make their own choices. Just be sure that when you offer choices, you’re offering acceptable choices, not issuing threats. It’s OK to outline consequences, but if you want them to really have choices, those choices need to be viable. Good luck!

  6. Thanks for re-posting this, Amanda. We’re raising a scientist who’s also a lawyer. He monitors every limit for possible signs of cracking. And you’re right, I’m chagrined to say, sarcasm is like fat on the fire. For some reason, this discussion of choices reminds me of the famous 1928 New Yorker cartoon, for which E.B. White supplied the caption:
    Mother and daughter at dinner.
    Mother: “It’s broccoli, dear.”
    Daughter: “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.”

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  8. Thanks for posting this! We are just entering the stage where my little girl is starting to understand that we are placing boundaries on her and she is purposefully testing them. This post was a good reminder of why she is testing the boundaries and how important are reactions to her testing are.

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  12. Emma

    Great post… thinking of my 2.5 year old son as a “scientist” (rather than as an annoying brat who’s trying to make me lose my mind!) might help me to keep the cool & calm demeanor I’m supposed to when dealing with his non-stop boundary testing!
    Stumbled across your site the other night & am slowly exploring it… loving it so far, and think it will become one of my go-to websites!

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