Giving Children Choices

Giving children choices helps them feel like they have some power and control over what they do, and is a step in growing up.

Everyone likes to have choices in the things they do. Some child care providers think they need to do all the planning. They forget that children need choices. There are some children who will just go along with whatever an adult tells them to do. Others will become angry because they aren’t given the chance to choose for themselves.

Giving children choices helps them feel like they have some power and control over what they do. It’s a step in growing up. Everything isn’t planned for them. Making good choices is a skill that children will use for the rest of their lives. The key to giving children choices is to first decide what choices you will allow them to make.

Good Choices for Children

A good way to start giving children choices is to select two or three things and let the child choose from them.

These choices are easy to allow children to make:

  • “Which book would you like to look at?”
  • “Do you want to use a blanket during nap time?”
  • “Would you like to use crayons or paint today?”
  • “Would you like a peanut butter sandwich or a cheese sandwich?”
Give only choices that you can agree to.

A key rule to remember is to give only choices that you can agree to. Some adults say things like, “Do you want to eat lunch now?” or “Do you want to go take a nap?” Do children really have a choice? What if the child says, “No, I want to play.” These are times when choices shouldn’t be given. Offer choices only when the child will truly be allowed to choose.

Battle of Wills

Some child care providers think they need to keep all the children together to listen to a story or have all the children sit at the table until everyone is finished eating. They often find that every day turns into a battle because one wiggly child won’t sit still. These are good times to give children choices. You can say, “Cara, you may sit quietly to listen to the story or go choose a book to look at or go put a puzzle together.”

Many adults think that giving children the choice to leave storytime will mean that all the children will leave to go play. That may be the case if the story isn’t interesting. But usually, you’ll find that some children will want to stay and listen and others will want to play. Giving children choices will mean that you’ll give up some control, but those battles to make children sit still will stop. Children often behave better when they are given choices.

Giving children choices helps them feel like they have some control over their lives.

Giving children choices during the day may mean that you will need to make some changes. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who chooses what toys the children play with each day?
  • Are the toys kept on low shelves, so the children can choose what they want?
  • Are the books kept where children can reach them?
  • Is there at least an hour of free play time set aside each day for children to choose and play what they want?
  • Are there some quiet toys near the table, so children can play when they are finished eating?
  • Are there some books or quiet toys for children to play with after their nap or if they can’t sleep?

If you’re looking for a way to work smarter instead of harder the Good Choice program allows you that freedom.

Reminders for Parents implementing the Good Choice Program at Cornwall Counseling

  • Remember: The Good Choice Program targets the child’s pre-established GOAL. It does not relate to other poor choices the child may make. For example, if the child’s goal is to Go to the bathroom alone, the program is centered around that particular goal. (Later on, we may add more goals. For now, we want to stay more focused on a single, manageable goal.)
  • Remember: If the child chooses poorly, after one prompt, the child is asked to make a better choice, either using a two-finger cue, showing the good choice coin, and/or by making a verbal request;
  • Remember: The child has the option to make a second choice, to change a poor choice to a good choice. If the child chooses poorly, after the prompt, the child loses the opportunity to receive h/er coin and h/er opportunity to enter the Good Choice Room at Cornwall Counseling;
  • Remember: Simply because the child chooses to make a poor choice after prompting does not prevent you from imposing your own rules. If the child chooses to make a poor choice over a good choice, one that is not in relation to the stated GOAL, the result will be the discipline of your own choosing;
  • Remember: The coin is NOT awarded prior to the child’s meeting at Cornwall Counseling. Do not promise the child that s/he will receive the coin, prior to your visit to Cornwall Counseling. After a brief discussion with you, the child, and h/er counselor a decision will be made regarding the awarding of the coin and access to the Good Choice Room;
  • Remember: Sometimes your child will not earn the coin.
  • Remember: Do not allow your child to hold or examine the coin. You can show it to h/er, but you cannot allow h/er to touch or hold it.
  • Remember: Remind your child that there is a graduation from the program. Remind h/er of the graduation rules and the process.

Teach Your Child to be Aware of Choice-Making

Teaching your child to make choices is one of the most important elements of raising a well-behaved, resourceful child. Let’s talk about Choice for a moment. Science Fiction stories often explore alternate choices, where the hero or heroine suddenly is plunged into an alternate reality—a reality that could only have happened had s/he made a different choice of action somewhere, sometime, before. That theme always points out to me how many choices we have in life and what can result from the many options we don’t take and the ones we do. From big choices (“Should I take the job and move to New York or set my sights on Oregon and become an herb farmer?”) to little choices (“Ice cream or salad?”), every move we make has ramifications.

How Do Choices Prevent Problems?

Part of being self-disciplined is understanding and taking responsibility for making life’s choices. Helping your children learn the difficult skill of making better, more useful choices is an essential part of parenting. A child who is skilled at consciously making choices will understand h/er own behaviors, and gain a sense of control over h/er own life. Choice-making also helps teach internal discipline, organization, and prioritizing.

Children learn how to make choices by watching you do it, and by gaining experience in choice-making.

Here are some tips about teaching choice to your child:

  • Never give a choice you aren’t willing to follow through on. That means if you say, “Either you clean your room or we are not going out to dinner tonight,” you should be prepared to start cooking. It also means if you say, “Clean your room and I’ll take you to the fanciest restaurant in town,” you need to be prepared to pick up that phone and start making reservations.
  • It’s your responsibility to keep your child safe and healthy. Keep food choices healthy, and allow your child to choose what to eat. If your kid chooses to eat only cookies and ice cream, stop having them as a choice.
  • Unless your child is very skilled at choice-making and your budget is unlimited, never offer choices without parameters. Give them an “either/or” if they are young, or up to several options if they are older. You’re looking for trouble (and you’re not teaching choice) if you say, “You can choose where we’re going on vacation,” or “Whatever you want for dessert, it’s your choice.” (Whee! We’re going to Bora Bora to eat a carload of chocolate mousse topped with champagne cream and gilded with gold leaf!)
  • When a child is making choices about h/er behavior, you can point out the choice and the consequences of it. “Jonah, I notice you have chosen to play Nintendo before dinner instead of doing your homework. I hope you are aware that you have chosen to stay home and finish your homework tonight instead of going to the movies with your friend Jeremy.”
  • Older children can use choices to learn how to prioritize. You can say, “Your laundry needs to be in the hamper, Rex needs a walk, and your book report is due tomorrow. You can choose how you arrange to get it all done.” (You might add, “If you would like some help organizing your time, I’ll be happy to take a couple of minutes with you at any point this evening.”)
  • Once a child makes a choice, lay off on the options, don’t continue to offer choices. (“Well, maybe not Bora Bora, perhaps Kathmandu.”) That’s what a choice is, it’s a decision. It’s part of choosing to live with all the ramifications.
  • Once a choice has been made, be clear as to when it becomes final. (“The special price on those discount tickets expires at midnight, so we need to be prepared to buy before bedtime.”)

Seeing disappointment in a child can be tough to watch, especially when you can take it away with a simple wave of your hand. But disappointment has its long-term rewards. Making a choice entails learning to live with the choice that’s been made. Don’t rescue your child from h/er experiences; it may make h/er feel better in the long run, but it ultimately won’t teach h/er anything at all.

KEEP IN MIND: Disappointment is a good teaching tool. The proper, measured and logical management of achievement and disappointment at an early age can result in a lifetime of benefit for your child.