Offering Choice: How to make a good parenting tool even better

It is easy to think of choice as a tool for parents. After all, giving young children some control by offering them “this one or that one” can mean a tantrum avoided or a complaint dodged. But for children the act of choosing is also a developmental challenge. When making a choice children experience:

  • some power in their own lives
  • the consequences of choices (this is why for the young ones we begin by offering two winners)
  • the reality that making a choice limits the option of having both.

Sample Scenario: I offer my son a choice (apple or pear) but when I give him the one he chooses (apple) he throws a fit saying he now wants the other one!

General guidelines for offering choice:

  • Don’t offer choice when the child is too tired or hungry to actually do the work.
  • Confirm the choice—verbally (“Apple it is then”) and/or visually (show the apple).
  • When the choice is made, remove the other from sight so that it doesn’t visually “tease” the child.

What to do when the child changes his mind:

Scenario #1: If you haven’t already committed to the child’s original choice (if you haven’t already cut up the apple):

  • Allow him ONE opportunity to change his mind. (“Oh, you needed to think about it a little bit more. I’ll put the apple away and cut up the pear instead.”)
  • If he is “throwing a fit” to communicate that he has changed his mind, wait until he can make the request in a way that you are able to respond to. Without adding to his distress, let him know that you will wait until he’s ready to use his words and try again. You might show empathy for his sadness or calmly step away or remind him, briefly and simply, what kind of request you can hear and respond to.

Note: We emphasize a delivery that doesn’t add upset to upset so that you may avoid flying apple pieces! This is often when a frustrated child will literally “throw the choice.” Should this happen, simply report what his body is showing you: “It looks like this is a time when your body isn’t ready for fruit.” Remember don’t join in with his intensity, rather pick up the apple and set it aside.

Scenario #2: If the other choice is no longer an option (the apple has already been cut):

  • Calmly provide the apple and step away so that your body language confirms that the choice is final.
  • You can offer sympathy (“Oh no, you changed your mind after I cut up the apple”). By mirroring his disappointment, you become his partner in disappointment (“Oops, the apple is cut already”) and not the cause of his disappointment (as in, “I’ve decided you cannot have the pear!”)
  • If applicable, offer the option to have the other choice later.
  • If your little one refuses the choice he made (he will not eat the apple), report his choice not to have anything right now with, “When you’re ready your apple is here.”

To calm your own frustration it can be helpful to remind yourself that a young child engaged in making a choice is practicing an important life skill and practicing always means sometimes getting it right and sometimes not.