We often hear that giving kids choices empowers them and helps our parenting lives go smoother. While true, offering kids choices also involves some mindfulness on the part of parents.
Parenting confession: I have given up shoe shopping with my kids. Yes, my kids still get new shoes when needed but traditional shoe shopping is a thing of the past (thanks internet!).
We have all had the experience of going to a shoe store or clothing store and trying to pick out items for our children. If you have your young child with you and give them some input in the choices, you know this can go downhill fast. The thought of getting something new, coupled with a dizzying array of choices can cause many kids to meltdown quickly. In our affluent society, there are so many choices of things like clothes and shoes that kids are simply overwhelmed.
The reason: too many choices can actually be paralyzing to kids.
Why then, you might ask, do all parenting “experts” suggest giving kids choices as a way of managing behavior and limiting tantrums?
Why Is It Important to Give Kids Choices
If you are the parent of a young child you know that choices make up a big part of your parenting vocabulary on a daily basis. All the parenting “advice” out there says to offer your toddlers a choice between two options to help them feel empowered and perhaps prevent some meltdowns. For example, you might say, “Sally, would you like to wear purple socks or white socks?” This, of course, is a method to prevent the unheard third option of the child refusing to wear socks at all.
Offering choices in this manner, especially for young children, does work well. But why?
Young children are inherently not in control of much in their lives. Think about it. Their parents pick their clothes (mostly), their food, their schedule, their bedtime, etc. Besides perhaps old age, there is virtually no other time in one’s life where you have less control over it than early childhood. In this context, even the smallest opportunity to have some input in a decision is huge.
“I get to choose which socks to wear!” thinks the toddler.
This, in part, is why giving kids choices is a smart parenting move and why it (usually) works. Young children are so enamored with the idea of having a choice that they forget to battle over the third unheard choice that you probably don’t want them to do.
The Science of Choice
If giving kids choices is such an effective parenting strategy then why is there so much drama at the shoe store? I’m offering my child his choice of shoes but he still has a meltdown?
This idea came to mind as I was listening to a podcast the other day and it was all about the science of choice. Not something we think of too often. After years of studying how people make choices and how their choices affect their happiness, psychologists have found one thing to be clear—people are actually happier when they have less freedom to change their choice.
Related reading: Finding Meaning in the Mayhem: How to Spot (and Survive) a Toddler Growth Spurt
Researchers conducted a study in which photography students were told, after working for months on their photographs, that they could only pick one to take home and one to leave at school. One group was told that they could switch the one they took home at any time. Another group was told their choice was final—they could not switch which photo they took home and which they left. What the researchers found was that the group who had to make an irrevocable choice was actually happier with their choice months later.
Why is this? Psychologists think that it is because we rationalize the choice we make when we know it is final. On the other hand, if we have in the back of our minds that we can switch our choice, we always doubt whether we made the right one.
Tips for Effectively Offering Choices
It seems counterintuitive but I think there is a kernel of truth in this that can help us with parenting young children too. Choices are good, but they must also have boundaries attached to them. Young children do need to feel empowered to choose, but the choices must be limited in some way. Given too many choices, young children go from feeling empowered to feeling out of control.
To my mind, this is the essence of authoritative parenting (also known as positive parenting). Children are given choices, at the right developmentally appropriate time and within certain boundaries. As children grow, authoritative parents provide increasing chances for kids to test their decision-making skills, but the parents are always there to provide the firm boundary. It’s no surprise that after decades of parenting research, authoritative parenting is what is associated with the best outcomes for kids.
Ideas for offering appropriate choices to kids:
- The choices are developmentally appropriate
Authoritative parents provide some choices, but the choices are limited based on what is best for the child at a certain age. For example, they may allow an older child the choice to walk to a neighborhood park or a neighbor friend’s house, but they may not leave the neighborhood to go anywhere else. This gives the child some sense of empowerment, but firm boundaries on what the expected behavior will be. If the boundaries are crossed, then the opportunity to make choices goes away and the child stays at home.
- The choices are limited
As the research showed, people are actually happier when their choices have some limitations. The individuals in the study were happier with their choice when they knew they couldn’t change it. This type of boundary might be difficult to implement with kids. However, kids do need choices to be bounded in some way. In order to be effective, the choices have to be limited to a couple or have some other boundary.
Related reading: What is Positive Parenting and How Does it Help My Child?
- The consequence of the choice is allowed to play out:
In this case, the child is offered a choice, however, the parent needs to really be comfortable with all the consequences of either choice. If the child chooses to not do her homework but the parent makes an excuse for the lack of homework, the choice really becomes pointless.
Sometimes psychology seems like common sense, but other times the research conducted in labs actually reveals something that, while counterintuitive, can really help us in our daily lives. This research on choice really helps us understand that for both kids and adults choices can be good, but certain boundaries make them better.
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