Let Them Make Choices

Today I was at IHOP having breakfast. At the table across the isle from me sat a young mother and three small sons the youngest being 4 or 5 years old.

The youngest boy was looking at the beautifully colored menu and pointed an item out to his mom. Then I heard the mother say to him, “No, I’m going to order you the thing I always get you”. The response made the little boy sad and he closed the menu and started to pout. Apparently he wanted to order something different than his mom was going to order for him. My first thoughts were in defense of the mother. Maybe she was going to have the boy share a plate of food since she knew he could not eat a whole order by himself. When the order came all three boys and the mother had there own plate of waffles topped with strawberries.

I don’t know exactly why the mom ordered the food she chose for her family. However it reminded me how often we make decisions for our children based on what we want for them, rather than asking them what they want.

It can be tricky because from the time are children are newborns we feed them what and when we want and dress them in what we want them to wear. Then slowly they grow up and become their own person with different likes than ours. It’s so gradual that there’s no certain day when suddenly we stop making decisions for them and they begin making all their own choices. So one of the parenting challenges is to gradually teach our kids how to make choices and let them practice.

Choosing what to order at a restaurant (or what to have for lunch at home) is a good place to learn how to choose. Just because we like waffles, it doesn’t mean they have to like them, even if we’ve been serving them for breakfast for as long as they’ve been alive. BUT, after they choose they need to be taught they have to accept the consequences of the choice.

What does this look like?

Teaching how to make a choice is more than just saying, “Fine, order what you want but don’t blame me if you don’t like it”.

It should sound more like, “The picture on the menu is pretty but it usually does not look like that when they serve it”, or, “Do you know that that dish has onions in it, do you want onions?” OR whatever else your experience tells you might be a concern that their inexperience might have kept them from realizing.

Suggested steps for teaching a child to make a good choice:

  • Explain to them you are giving them a chance to make their own choice
  • Simplify the choice by narrowing it down to 3 or 4 options
  • Explain the options (be specific and use a kind voice)
  • Give parameters (money limit or size limit, etc)
  • After they’ve made their choice, if it fits within the parameters you’ve set, respect their decision and let go. Don’t try to talk them into something different.
  • Let them feel the natural consequence of their choice.

It’s good to let our children practice making a choice when the outcome does not have a huge consequence. Let them make their own choices while the consequences are small and safe and they can get practice for the bigger choices down the road.

Just Move the Thing!

When I was a young mom, my 8-month-old baby loved to play in the dirt of my indoor potted plant. Each time he would crawl over and get a handful of dirt I’d race over and try to catch him before he’d throw it all over the carpet. I’d move him to another room or find him toys to distract him but soon he’d find his way back to the pot of dirt. I remember wondering if I should slap his hand every time he did it. Or how many times I was going to have to tell him, “No” before he’d finally learn and stop doing it.

Around this same time of life as I was still wondering the best way to handle this kind of parenting situation I remember watching another parent in a public place in a similar situation. They stood right between their child and the thing they did not want them to touch, waiting for them to do the thing they’d been forbidden to do so they could loudly say, “No” and slap the child’s hand. The scenario played out over and over and over again. It was like the parent was daring the child to do it so they could prove to the little person that they were in charge and what they wanted would be what happened.

Now, years later I realize the answer to this situation… Just move the thing out of sight! If your child wants to keep playing in the dirt of your potted plant, or pulling the night light out of the electric socket or pulling all the books off the bottom shelf of the bookcase, just move them. It’s a waste of your time and energy (and a power struggle waiting to happen) to have a situation where you must constantly monitor your child’s actions and correct them. The more times it happens the more frustrated you will become and nothing good will come of it. Also, it’s good to remember that in reality the whole thing probably just feels like a game to your child and they might not be doing it to make you mad, they just see it as a fun game. They’ll outgrow the stage before very long and you can put your books back on the bottom shelf and move the plant back into the living room. As your child grows older there will be lots of things that you will not be able to “move out of the way” which could turn into power struggles, so don’t sweat the small things – just avoid them. Save your energy for the things that just can’t be moved out of the way, or be avoided.