Parenting Strategies: Giving Your Child a Choice

Developing effective parenting strategies is one of the most challenging parts of parenting. Setting expectations and adhering to them effectively, without going overboard, losing our patience or calling it quits is tough. Consistency isn’t enough; we also need to find the right parenting techniques or strategies – methods that our children understand and respond to.

One strategy my husband and I have found incredibly effective has been what I call our “choice one, choice two” technique, which consists of transferring the decision to the child, within set parameters. Right now, we’ve found it to be the most effective technique with our three year old, but as an educator, I’ve used the same strategy with high school kids as well, and it works all the way up!

Basically, when an incident arises, whether it’s a toddler demanding a different colored sticker, or a teenager pushing back regarding certain expectations, instead of “laying down the law”, present the child with two choices. Indicate that you understand their point of view, and then ask them how they choose to proceed. You might say, for example to the young child, “I understand that you want the red sticker. But your brother chose the red sticker. You now have two choices: x and y”.

This very simple technique works well with many children for three reasons:

  1. It diffuses a sense of competition. Instead of posing the situation in an adversarial manner (i.e. the parent wants “x” and the child wants “y”), this places the situation in the control of the child, but within parameters designated by the parents. Instead of placing the parents (or educator) and child in a win-lose scenario, this becomes a win-win scenario no matter what choice the child makes.
  2. It allows the child to play an active role in their own development and transfers responsibility for their shoulders. As parents/educators, if we present a one-solution scenario to the child, they have to follow through, but we are largely responsible for the outcome.  When we present them with a choice, we are responsible for making sure both choices are legitimate, but the child takes on greater responsibility for their actions.
  3. It allows the child to focus on making wise choices. Both choices presented are acceptable, but each choice will have a different outcome, and the child is responsible for following through, regardless of the outcome, on the choice they have made. This helps the child pay attention to the consequences of their actions and teaches them how to make wise choices based on the most desirable consequences. This skill can then be applied in a wide variety of life situations.

In order for this parenting strategy to be effective, the nature of the choices offered to the child should differ. Choices shouldn’t be reserved for negative behavior only.  If the choice is always framed as a punishment (e.g. Choice 1 – “good behavior” and Choice 2 – “punishment”), it ceases to have the benefits mentioned above and becomes a threat. If, however, the choices are sometimes arbitrary (Choice 1 being equally desirable as Choice 2, and neither being influential), sometimes disciplinary (Choice 1 – adjusting behavior; Choice 2 – accepting logical consequence for not adjusting behavior), and sometimes neutral, but significant (Choice 1 – one opportunity; Choice 2 – a different opportunity, with both choices OK, but having a different short term or long term impact), then the child learns how to take more and more responsibility for choices with varying degrees of importance.

Here is a set of examples of choices parents could pose for a young child:

  1. (Arbitrary) It’s ice cream time! You have two choices. We have chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream. Which would you like? In this case, the choice is insignificant, and the difference between the options is minimal. But, even small choices like this help the child learn to take responsibility and be happy with the choice they made.
  2. (Disciplinary) I understand that you want to play with that car, but your brother is playing with it, and it’s not OK to grab the car from your brother. You have 2 choices: 1) Give the car back to your brother, say you’re sorry and play with something else or 2) Go to your room and stay by yourself until you’re ready to apologize and play nicely with others. This time, the parent gives the choice as a disciplinary measure. The child still has the choice, and the parent will respect the child’s choice even if the child goes to their room. The choices allow the child to react differently, but BOTH choices require the child to remedy their behavior sooner (immediate apology and moving on) or later (calming down on your own and then apologizing).
  3. (Neutral, but Significant) You got up early today and you usually take a nap. I understand that you don’t want to take a nap now, but you also asked if you could stay up a little late to play a game with Daddy after he gets home from work. You have two choices: 1) You can take a nap now so you’re not tired later and then stay up and play with Daddy or 2) You can stay up now and then go to bed on time and play the game with Daddy a different day. Note that both of these choices are neutral – there is no situation needing to be remedied; one is not necessarily better than the other, but they are different. The child’s choice, in this case, is significant but short term. It will make a difference in what they do that day.  

Here’s how we can apply the same parenting strategy to an older child (teen).

  1. (Arbitrary) As a birthday gift, we’re giving you and two of your friends tickets to Six Flags. You choose the day: do you want it on your birthday (Choice 1) or the following Saturday (Choice 2)?
  2. (Disciplinary) I understand that you didn’t finish your chores this morning because you wanted to sleep in, but you know you have a responsibility as a member of this family and may not go out with your friends until you have fulfilled your duties here. Now you have two choices 1) Your friend can stay, help you with your chores, and then you can leave together or 2) If you don’t want your friend helping with the chores, you can explain that you aren’t available and he can leave.
  3. (Neutral, but Significant) You get to choose whether you take an extra science (Choice 1) or an extra art (Choice 2) during your junior and senior year. Think carefully because you can use your subject choices to prepare for what you want to do in college.

The choices we can offer older children differ from the choices we offer young children, but the principle is the same. They play an active role in their life decisions at their respective levels of ability. We, as parents or educators are there to guide them and help them find viable solutions.

Of course, there will always be the child that says “no” to both choice 1 and 2 and suggests a choice 3. If the choice is arbitrary, and choice 3 is available, there’s no problem with this unless you have a specific reason for not accepting choice 3. In fact, with arbitrary choices, there’s no harm in giving the child a much wider range of choices (bearing in mind, however, that if you do this with a very young child, the decision making process could become excruciatingly drawn out).

If, however, the child rejects the only viable choices offered when the choices are disciplinary or significant, and the third choice they suggest does not meet the objective, what do you do? Here are a few ideas

For young children:

Repeat their choices and ask them to go stay in their room until they are ready to come tell you which of the two choices they would like to make. If they are upset, this gives them time to calm down and then rethink through what they want to do.

For older children:

Something along the lines of:  “OK. I understand that you don’t like the choices you have, but considering (explanation of why they have to make this choice), you have to choose one of them. Why don’t you take some time to think it over, and tell us your choice later? You have until (deadline). If you haven’t made a viable choice by (deadline), your father and I will have to choose for you, which would be regrettable because we believe you are responsible enough to make this choice for yourself.”  

If you haven’t used this strategy yet with your children, give it a try. You might be surprised at how a child’s attitude can change when they feel that they are in control of their decisions, while still feeling the security of clear parental guidelines. It might just be the key you’re looking for to diffusing confrontations, taking the spotlight off me-vs-them, and putting it on areas of growth where your child really needs to focus, in addition to helping them develop their problem-solving and decision making capacities on a regular basis.

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