“Do you want the blue plate or the green plate?” I asked my daughter.
“Ummm…the green one.”
My mom was visiting and observed this interchange. “Why does it matter what color plate she gets? Just make a decision and give her one.”
I think my response was something along the lines of “you’re right, it doesn’t really matter, so that makes this an easy decision in which to get her input because sometimes I need to make decisions without her input. Then I can simply say, ‘You’ve been making a lot of decision today, it’s now mommy’s turn to decide.’”
And life went on.
Until we unexpectedly adopted a sibling set and found our parenting world turned upside down.
We were now learning about trauma and secure attachment. We were now learning the “why” behind what we did as parents, and it was causing us to not only rethink some things about how we parented these sweet babies, but it was also helping us parent our older kids in a more intentional manner.
So let’s revisit the question my mom posed to me originally. Why does it matter? Why give our kids choices?
Here are 7 reasons why giving kids choices matters:
Choices give our kids a feeling of control
If it doesn’t matter which color plate they have, then it shouldn’t matter that we let them make that decision. If we feel strongly that they need to have the plate we gave them, maybe we need to stop and ask ourselves why it’s so important? Maybe we have to think about our own need for control?
Feeling like we have control over something small begins to give a sense of say or buy-in, which in turn provides a sense of security. According to PennState Extension, learning to engage that desire for control over what they do is simply an important aspect of growing up and something our kids need. Giving them choices so they have control is developmentally healthy and necessary.
Giving kids choices helps outline expectations
None of my children like to be told to do something now, but my adopted son has a particular aversion to it. I suspect it may be something subconsciously tied to how often he was moved to different homes in the 16-months before he gained permanency. Regardless, for him, how we transition can make or break the next thing we do and it really comes down to setting expectations.
Clear choices help with this transition by laying out the expectations. A couple weeks ago we were at a friend’s house and the time to start walking home was approaching. I hadn’t brought a wagon, so I needed him to walk and to do it willingly. (He’s a big kid, so carrying him was not going to be a good option.)
Here’s how it played out:
Me: (Getting down to his eye level) Wayne, it’s almost time to go home so we need to finish playing. Do you want to go home now or in 4-minutes?
Wayne: Can we go home in 5-minutes? (I was so surprised that he asked to compromise, but it was a great opportunity to say yes to him!)
Me: That sounds great. I’ll set a timer. Do you want to hit start or shall I?
He chose to hit start, and when the timer went off, he put away the toys and walked home without incident.
True confession: When this played out, my mama pride level spiked. This was a textbook perfect interaction (which is probably why I remember it) and we had an audience to witness it! It was that one moment that counter-balanced the hundreds of much less than perfect interactions.
Over time as I have consistently given choices to outline expectations, smooth transitions are becoming more and more of the norm because he is prepared for and can anticipate what is coming.
Choices help with participation
As our kids begin to feel a sense of control and know what to expect, we start to see our kids begin to participate without resistance. They eat their food without complaining about the plate choice. They put away the toys and leave when the timer goes off. And they do it willing.
When our kids feel like they are part of the process, they engage more readily. Chores need to be done, so the doing of the chore isn’t a choice we will offer, but maybe we can offer our kids choice as to when they do them. It changes the chore from being an order to a responsibility. Choices invite their input into the process as well and begin to lay the ground work for our kids to negotiate their perspective into it. Some of our best ‘tweaks’ to how we do chores have come as a result of our kids willing engagement in things they would rather not do.
Giving kids choices provides practice making decisions
In her book, The Next Right Thing, Emily P Freeman says that “we make better decisions by making decisions, not by thinking about making decisions. It takes practice…”
Giving our kids choices is providing them opportunities to practice making decisions. When we begin with inconsequential decisions, like what color plate they want, then they can move on to things that are a bit more challenging. Over time, the implications of these choices will become more significant, but with practice making decisions, the ability to make them will become more natural and easy.
Blue or red? Now or in 5-minutes? Today or tomorrow? Stay home or come along? Everyday practicing of choices continues to grow and strengthen our decision-making muscles.
Choices keep us focused
Sometimes things are just too big and choices help us focus. Have you ever seen a flow chart? It starts with a big either-or option and you answer yes or no. Then you follow the arrows on the chart that corresponds with your answer until you find the next set of options. This continues until you have an “answer”. Choices become a verbal flow chart to help our kids process and stay focused on what they are thinking about.
For example, “what do you want to do?” or “what toy do you want to play with?” feels like we are giving a choice, but it’s really an open-ended question with endless possibilities. That can be overwhelming.
Instead, start broadly and work down to the decision.
“Do you want to play in your room or the family room? The family room? Great. Do you want to build something or just play? Build something? OK, would you prefer Legos or Lincoln Logs? Legos. Excellent. Let’s get that bin out for you.”
Each set of choices kept the focus on the original open-ended question in a manner that led to a decisive answer.
Choices help us achieve our desired outcome
Sometimes giving our kids choices helps us achieve the desired outcome we are looking for. By setting expectations and keeping the focus, we can help our kids choose things in a way that they are on board and believe they made a decision, even though it’s one that we had already determined to be the best option.
Similar to helping provide the expectation of what is about to happen, choices can guide our kids to choose what it is that we wanted in the first place.
For example, if we want them to play inside doing something quiet while we get ready for having company for dinner, then we don’t want to give them any choices that involve playing outside or messy crafts with glitter. Using the flow chart example above, while keeping our kids focused on making a decision, we can also gently guide our kids choices toward our desired outcome of playing with a quiet toy indoors.
Giving kids choices makes us trust-worthy
This is really the bottom-line goal of giving our kids choices. We want the trust that is found in secure, connected relationship. As we give choices and provide follow-through, they see that we do what we say. The more they experience this, the more they can trust that our choices and decisions are for their good. So when there are times where choices aren’t available, we can tap into this relational trust.
Sometimes we say things like, “You have done a lot of choosing today, so now it’s my turn.” Sometimes when safety is at risk we have to just act without explanation. Regardless, giving choices provides the framework so that when the choice is not theirs to make, they can engage willingly.
It’s your choice…
So, are you going to choose to practice giving choices or just tell your kids what to do?
Here are some questions to help you start thinking about how you will implement giving your kids choices:
- What are some inconsequential things where you can offer your kids choices and invite their input and involvement?
- What transitions might improve by giving your kids choices to better prepare them?
- What are 3 simple choices you can begin offering your kids today?
- What is one area where giving your kids choices would improve their participation?
- What questions can you switch from open-ended to providing your kids choices which are more specific?
- What is one way today that you can use choices to gently guide your kids toward your desired outcome?