During the preschool years, children have a need to assert their independence. Giving them choices when it’s feasible feeds that need, and can stock up points in an account of sorts, to draw upon when choices are not negotiable. When children feel like they already have power, they are less likely to demand it through tantrums.
Think of the ways you can invite children to make their own choices. “Which barrette do you want to wear?” “Which center do you want to explore?” “Do you want 1, 2, or 3 apple slices?” Be careful when you’re phrasing the choice, to offer only those scenarios you are truly willing to accept. Don’t ask, “Which shoes do you want to wear?” if you are not willing to let him wear his plastic rain boots. Narrow down to only acceptable choices, two or three, therby giving him the choice of suitable options. Few things incur the wrath of a child like offering a choice, only to take it back.
Allowing children to feel that sense of power that comes from making their own decisions can also diffuse a situation where they may feel powerless. Instead of having a fight over whether or not your child will get dressed, allow your child to choose her own clothes if she can do so in a timely manner. If she chooses not to, her clothes will be chosen for her. Most children will want to assert their power of choice. Giving them an appropriate opportunity to choose can divert their attention from situations where there is no choice. Think about the areas where you are willing to let your children take the wheel and make the choices, and also where you are not. Wearing pants to school may not be negotiable, but your child could choose which pair to wear.
Be careful not to offer choices where there is none. When I did my 6th grade student teaching, I had a supervising teacher who pointed out my tendency to follow up a reprimand with “OK?”. “You’ll be staying after class for 10 minutes, OK?” “You’ll need to move to that seat, OK?” To me it was rhetorical, but my teacher pointed out that to a child, I was offering a choice I wasn’t really willing to let them make. What I meant to say, and learned to say, was “Do you understand?”
There are other ways we unintentionally offer null choices. Have you ever practiced a skill with a child and said, “Do you want to do it again?” When you really meant, “Let’s do it again!” Or how about, “Do you want to come inside?” meaning, “It’s time to go in now.” Then there’s always, “Why don’t you finish up your dinner and then we’ll have dessert?” If you wonder why children argue these points, it’s because our wording has told them it’s negotiable!
Giving children choices in small things, and allowing them to experience the consequences, good and bad, gives them the necessary experience to make much bigger decisions in the future. When leaving their grandparents’ house on a cool night recently, our boys had the choice of whether or not to put their jackets on before the short drive. One son chose not to wear his jacket. From the sounds in the back seat, he had a chilly 5 minute drive. The next time he was given that choice, he was quick to put his jacket on.
Experiencing that kind of undesirable consequence doesn’t just teach children specific lessons, like “put your jacket on when it’s cold out”, but gives them experience with decision-making ,and an understanding that their choices have consequences attached. They begin to learn that in a cause and effect world, they will not be rescued from the effects they have caused. This is a valuable lesson, and one that, sadly, too many people reach adulthood without learning. We owe more to the children we love and teach!
Top photo provided by Ben Earwicker.