Why it is important to give children choices
What will happen if we give our young children choices? Will they start to rule the roost? Or will it help them become more responsible? Read on to find out.
By Dr Meghna Singhal • 16 min read
“Dinner every day with my 6-year old was a struggle. She would take forever to eat, not eat half the items that were prepared, beg for videos during her meal, and find whatever excuse she could to get off the table. I was at my wit’s end. No amount of reasoning, scolding, or offering bribes worked. Then I had an idea. I said, “Do you want to eat your dinner at the table or under the table?” Can you guess which one she picked?! Dinner was done in ten minutes that evening.”
“When I told my 5-year old that he was not allowed to give our pet dog Snowy a haircut with his scissors, he looked at me defiantly and said, “I WILL!” I looked around helplessly. I had to go to the kitchen to prepare dinner and I couldn’t risk leaving him with Snowy. Then I had an idea. I said, “I don’t want Snowy’s hair cut. What else can you cut?” Now I had his interest. He bobbed around. “I can cut chart paper, tissues, newspaper, I can’t cut the laundry. I know! Grass!” He ran outside to trim the grass.”
“Getting my 3-year old into the car was an ordeal. She would be busy picking flowers, chasing the butterflies, or observing a spider or dead cockroach. She had no urgency while I would be rushing to get out the door to reach her play school and my office on time. It would always end in tears as I had to yell or forcibly strap her into her car seat. Then I had an idea. I asked, “Do you want to hop to the car like a rabbit or swim to the car like a fish?” We giggled so much as we hopped to the car. It became an everyday ritual- wherein I would ask her which animal she would like to be, and we would pretend to be that animal. Getting out of the house has never been easier.”
Every human being likes to have choices- some input and feeling of control over their lives. It is important to give young children choices in everyday situations. Choice? What choice, you may ask. There is no choice. My child has to go to school. She has to do her homework. She has to wash her hands before eating her dinner. It’s simply not negotiable!
Giving choices does not mean we let our children rule the roost or put their health at risk. It certainly does not mean handing your 3-year old your house keys and the credit card. It simply means letting your child make small everyday decisions. When you let your child make a choice, you acknowledge his worth, offer him ownership, and allow him to feel empowered. When you let your child make a choice you’re saying to him, “I see you as a person who can make decisions.” And these small decisions lay the foundation for autonomy. A child doesn’t learn how to make decisions by following directions, but by making choices himself.
Erikson, known for his theory of psycho-social development, believed that at the second stage of development beginning soon after one year of age, children must resolve the conflict between ‘Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt’. If children in this stage are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to deal with the world. If they are overly controlled, or not given the opportunities to assert themselves, they may begin to feel inadequate, may remain dependent on adults, or be overly influenced by peers.
In the Indian context, unfortunately, rather than focusing on autonomy, we emphasise obedience to the point of equating it with respect. Obedience, with all the trappings of control that must be used to enforce it, however, fails miserably. Reams of research shows that children are less likely to comply with a rule when they have had no say (choice!) in discussing it.
10 Benefits of giving children Choices
- Choices build confidence: Decision making enables confidence building. When you let your pre-schooler decide whether she wants to wear her jacket or her socks first, you’re enabling decision-making. If these decisions go well, she will feel capable and this will build her confidence to take bigger decisions in the future.
- Choices teach responsibility: By building small choices into the daily routine, you can teach your child to self-regulate and be responsible for his actions. Letting your primary schooler decide whether he wants to do his chores first or his homework makes him learn that his choices have consequences for him (and others). He will then learn to consider the long-term effects of his decisions.
- Choices foster creativity: When you allow your child to make choices, you foster creativity and encourage abstract thinking. In a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, when pre-schoolers were allowed to select material to be used for making a collage, their work was judged to be more creative than the work of children who used exactly the same material but did not get to choose them.
- Choices help avoid tantrums: Tantrums usually stem from a lack of power. A sandwich cut in triangles, whereas the child wanted rectangles, may sometimes be reason enough for the child to go sprawling across the floor. But giving the child a simple choice in the shape of the sandwich that he wants can enable you to side-step the power struggle and help avoid tantrums.
- Choices further academic performance: Educational literature is replete with journal articles and textbooks extolling the academic benefits of student choices. If you let your primary schooler make academic choices (“Would you like to complete the reading puzzle first or the numbers activity?), your child can benefit in multiple ways: greater completion of homework assignments, higher quality of academic work, and more favourable attitudes toward her academic work.
- Choices teach regulation: According to Dr. Laura Markham, author of ‘Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids’, choices can be used to help children manage themselves. If your child is being frustrated by a difficult Math homework, you can say “You could go get a drink or take a deep breath.” Choices will enable your child to consider what would be most effective for him at that point.
- Choices nurture efficiency: Getting the flexibility to decide what to do and when to do it enables us to accomplish more. Indeed, when second-graders were given the opportunity to decide which learning tasks they would tackle at any given moment, they completed more tasks in less time, according to a research published in the American Educational Research Journal.
- Choices beget respect: If a child is given the opportunity to make his own choices, it makes him feel powerful. Then he would not need to exert power over others or to break rules behind his parents’ (or teachers’) back. When his desire is respected, it is easier for him to respect others’ wishes, and to take the needs of others into consideration when making choices.
- Choices aid problem-solving: When asked to fix problems (“The trouble is the markers will dry up without their caps. How can we ensure that caps are always put back on the markers?”), your child will be more willing to pitch in with solutions. (And more likely to put the caps on, no matter what solutions she comes up with!)
- Choices minimise conflicts: When adults direct a child’s behaviour most of the day, his drive for autonomy is thwarted and rebellion may start to build up. Imagine having a job in which you are told every little thing to do, even when to sip coffee and use the washroom. You would either complain or get another job. However when children rebel, they are mislabelled as ‘misbehaving’. If you treat your child with the same respect that you expect and understand that each child has individual needs, interests, and preferences, you can provide him with opportunities to choose what is best for himself at any given time.
The Do’s and Don’t’s of giving children choices
HOW TO GIVE CHOICES
- Offer realistic, appropriate, and acceptable choices
The options you offer your child need to be acceptable to you; don’t offer a choice if one of the choices is not acceptable. Also, the choices need to be realistic and do-able. Saying “Pick out a book to read for bed-time” when you wouldn’t want to read a 250-page book to your child won’t work.
- Create a ritual around choices
Make certain choices rituals. Once a week, have a ‘decorate your own pizza night’ where everyone chooses what veggies they decorate on their pizza. (Additionally, letting your child choose vegetables in the market will also make it more likely for her to try them.) Every Sunday morning, your child could choose to run errands with you or stay home. At the library, let your child choose five books.
- Use choices to provide information
Choices can become effective decision-making tools when they are offered along with information about the alternatives. For example, when you say “I can buy you these expensive shoes now or after two months for your birthday”, help your child understand the consequences associated with each. If your child chooses to buy them now, she would be able to wear them for Diwali. If she defers buying shoes until her birthday, she could choose them in a colour to match her birthday dress or theme.
- Thank your child for making a choice
If your child chose to run errands with you, say “I’m so glad you chose to help me out. It’s so much more fun doing errands with you.” If you enjoyed the book your child chose at the library, say “Thanks for choosing such a good book. It was so fun to read this book with you.”
HOW NOT TO GIVE CHOICES
- Don’t offer too many choices
It is best to offer children limited options, irrespective of the child’s age. However, as they get older the choices can become more complex (and consequences of their choices become more pertinent).
Too much Choice?
It’s a usual weekend and you go to a supermarket. You see an attractive display table with 24 varieties of jam. If you sample the spread you get Rs.30 off any jam you buy.
At another time, you go to the same supermarket and find a similar table, except that only 6 varieties of jam are on display.
When are you more likely to buy?
Researchers at the University of Stanford ran this experiment and found that more people approached the tasting table when it displayed 24 jams but when it came to actual purchase, a statistically significant number of consumers who saw the smaller display actually bought one of the jams. Thus, people prefer fewer options. Choice overload decreases our motivation to make a choice. The apparent contradiction in the initial attractiveness of large assortments and its demotivating consequences is also referred to as the paradox of choice.
Says Sheena Iyengar, the lead investigator of this now famous research, and the author of The Art of Choosing, “The deleterious effects of offering people so much choice have been observed across a variety of different choosing domains.” So take a leaf out of Iyengar’s book and avoid flooding your child with too many choices!
- Don’t offer unpleasant options
When you give your child a choice, ensure that both (or all) the options are legitimate and pleasant. Saying to children who are fighting over a doll, “You can either share this doll or go sit in a corner” isn’t really offering a choice (it’s more like a threat, in fact), because no child would choose solitary confinement willingly. Instead saying, “You can share the doll or I could help one of you find another doll” is more meaningful to the children.
- Don’t criticise your child’s choices
If your child does something that doesn’t turn out to have favourable consequences, avoid criticising his poor decision while correcting his behaviour. If your child kicks someone, rebuking him by saying “Bimal! You made a bad choice!” doesn’t help. It presumes that Bimal consciously considered each behaviour in his repertoire and selected kicking. It also sends a message that he is a poor decision-maker.
- Don’t offer a choice when you don’t intend to
By saying “Do you want to take a shower now?” or “It’s time to clean up, okay?” you’re giving a choice to the child to delay bath or cleaning-up time. Instead, try saying “Do you want to play with your boat in the bath today or with your squeaky duck?” and “Do you want to clear up the blocks first or the puzzles?”
Giving choices to young children offers multiple benefits. Its time you put this powerful tool in your parenting armamentarium and watch its magic unfold!
In a Nutshell
- It is important to give children choices in everyday decisions
- There are many benefits to giving children choices- for example, choices aid problem solving, foster creativity, build confidence, and teach responsibility
- It is a good idea to offer realistic and appropriate choices and to create a ritual out of giving choices
- It is not a good idea to offer too many choices or to criticise your child’s choices (no matter what the consequence)
What you can do right away
- Ask if your child wants to play I Spy or listen to music while riding in the car
- Ask which homework your child wants to complete first
- Every morning ask your child for his choice of school snack- such as fruit or sandwich
About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 26 August 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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