It is important to give young children the opportunity to make some choices on their own. This gives the child a sense of control over his own situation, and helps to avoid many power struggles. It is also a great tool to help children prepare for later in life when they start taking on more responsibilities.
Here are some tips for offering choices to children:
• Keep it simple, especially with very young children. "Do you want to wear the red pajamas or the green ones?" "Would you like milk or water to drink?" "Would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bath?" The end result won’t make much difference to a parent. The child, however, may feel more empowered than if he was just taking orders.
• Give choices that have two acceptable answers. If you need to go to the store, don’t ask, "Would you like to go to the store or stay home?" Even if you are sure you know what the answer will be, there is always the chance your child will make the other choice. If she chooses to stay home and that is not an option, you are showing her that her choices don’t really mean anything.
l If you were instead to ask, "Would you like to sing a song or play I-Spy on the way to the store?", the choice is not about going to the store, but rather how to pass the time.
• Limit a child’s choices. Too many choices can be confusing and frustrating for children and exhausting for parents. Start with a few choices and try to be consistent with them every day. Choices about what to wear, what to have for snack, or which book to read are easy decisions to make. As your child grows, he will be able to make more and more choices for himself.
• Also try to limit the amount of time allowed to make a choice. If your child is taking ten minutes to decide whether to wear her white hat or the purple one, you need to step in and make the call.
• Sometimes there is no choice. When safety is a concern, or when you simply have to do something a certain way, the option of a choice is not there.
• Offering a choice is a helpful substitution for saying "no" to a child’s request, but there are times when "no" is the only answer. He cannot wear a cap instead of his bicycle helmet. If she doesn’t want to hold your hand crossing the street, she cannot choose to run across by herself.
• A general rule for offering choices is that they should be fair to both parent and child. Choices should help a child feel self-confident and in control. Parents will appreciate the cooperation that comes from allowing their child to make choices.
• When a child starts making small choices at an early age, he learns about the decision making process. As he gets older, he will start making many of these small choices on his own without prompting from parents.
• Not every choice a child makes will be the best one, but each is an opportunity to learn and develop a sense of responsibility as she makes her way toward adulthood.
Shawna Munro works at the Elspeth Reid Family Resource Centre, a facility of Child and Family Services of Western Manitoba that offers parenting information and support.
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