Childhood is often portrayed as an idyllic time filled with carefree days and little to no worries, stress, or responsibilities. However, imagine a world in which you tend to have very little say in most aspects of your day to day life—your schedule and activities are determined for you, you are typically told what to wear and what to eat, and on top of that, how to behave! When you consider this perspective, it is no wonder that young children engage in power struggles—they are simply trying to gain some authority and autonomy over their existence.
One simple way to support children in their quest for authority and autonomy is to give them choices. It is important to integrate the opportunity for choice throughout the child’s day rather than only offering choices in times of conflict or in instances when behavior requires modification. Just like any other skill, the ability to make choices takes time and practice.
When my daughter was younger, I admittedly tried to use “choices” as a means of gaining the upper hand and getting the outcome I desired. The most memorable example is when after days of struggle and very little intake of medicine, I asked whether she wanted to take her liquid antibiotic for her ear infection or have me take her to the doctor to get a shot of it—and she chose to get a shot. Be sure the choices offered are “true choices”, meaning that either option is acceptable. Otherwise, your child will begin to question your credibility.
When we give children the opportunity to make choices, we are conveying our trust in their decision making capabilities and judgement. This, in turn, contributes to the child’s growing sense of confidence.
Think of one area in your child’s routine in which you can incorporate a choice and build from there. It may be part of their evening bathroom routine (use the toilet or brush your teeth first) or which pajamas to wear to bed.
Limit the number of options so as not to overwhelm your child—two to three acceptable options are plenty!
Remember that even pre-verbal children can successfully make choices. They can indicate their preference by pointing to or touching which shirt they want to wear or which book they want to read.