children

Helping Children Learn to Make Decisions

Hi Dr. Rene,
I have a third grader who, at times, seems to be paralyzed by indecision. Here is a typical situation: each week his teacher sends home a homework packet that requires two reading and writing activities. He is given ten activities to choose two from (e.g., write a letter to the librarian telling her why she should get this book). Although he reads for at least 30 minutes a night, he has difficulty choosing what book to base an activity on and then choosing an activity. He asks us for help, and we will suggest a book he has just read  and a potential activity or two, but that never seems to help. He will spend a half hour to an hour fretting about what to do and sometimes ends up in tears. What is the best way for us to support him in this situation? He is a good reader and grasps what he is reading, but this particular activity is very draining for him.
Thank you for your advice,
Cindy

Hi Cindy,
I would focus first on teaching him decision making separate from homework time. Start small, each day give him choices like apples or oranges for snack, or playing monopoly or clue with you. Continually offer very small choices. When you are in the car, a book on tape or music, tucking in this story or that. When he is able to make small choices, occasionally comment, “you decided that by yourself,” “I saw you think about it and decide on this story,” or ask, “how did you make that decision so easily? What helped you decide?” Talk with him through his decision making process.

When a choice is too difficult, focus on helping him weigh his options. Remind him of the high and low points of each choice, remind him how or what he chose last time or how it worked out. If he really can’t decide whether you choose for him or not, I would ask him to let you know one thing he liked about each of the options and why he might have chosen each one later. This is still teaching him to look at the details.

Gradually work your way up to bigger decisions such as who to invite over to play or which after school activity to sign-up for. Afterwards talk about how either decision would have it’s benefits. With homework specifically, maybe talk about what types of projects he’s enjoyed doing before or what types of projects tend to get the best grades. You might take a list of ten projects and whittle it down to the top three. If they truly are equal choices to him, or he wrestles with the decision among the top three for more than a few minutes, teach him how to make the arbitrary decisions like flipping a coin or assigning numbers and rolling a die, at this age even eeny-meeny-miney-mo works.

I would also try to find fun ways to practice like the Choose Your Own Adventures storybooks that were popular in the 80s and 90s. These are read aloud chapter books where every few pages children get to choose the direction of the plot. Encourage him to pick the ice cream flavor at the grocery store or the next family outing to take. Think of fun ways to practice choices often.

If it really is more narrowly related to academics and homework, it may be that he is perfectionistic or stressed about academic performance. If this seems to be the issue, I would learn more about perfectionistic tendencies and talk to his teacher about the academic worries. Ask if he struggles this way in the classroom as well.
Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Teaching a Child to Greet Others

Dear Dr. Rene

My child is almost two years old, and she doesn’t always greet people she knows when she sees them. Sometimes she looks the other way as if they are not there, or she shows that she doesnt want to greet them. I dont want to stress on that, but I would like to somehow enforce positive social behavior nicely. I dont know why she does that.

Also, every time I pick her up from the nursery, she comes out, doesn’t greet me, doesn’t answer me and just goes out. Its as if she wants to tell me not to think that I am doing her a favor by sending her there on the contrary.

She is also very jealous when I give my attention to other people, or when I am working on my laptop. She often shuts it, tells me to put barney on or holds my head so that I look at her. I am scared that I might be doing something wrong. For example, I was at my mothers, and she has a french bulldog who was sleeping on my lap. When it woke up, I found her coming over trying to sleep in the exact same spot that it was sleeping in.

Thank you, Mitchell

Hi Mitchell,

The best way to teach her to greet people and encourage the behavior to happen more often is to model it yourself. When she is with you, greet people warmly, smile big and model language you would want her to use. This teaches her without pressure. Also, greet her directly often. Greet her with a smile and “hello” whenever you enter the room.  When you do suggest she greet someone else, give her choices about how to do this. You might offer that she smiles, waves, says “hello,” shakes hands or high-fives. When she does greet someone nicely, provide descriptive praise. This is along the lines of, “that was nice to say ‘hi’ to them!” or, “you waved, that made Grandma happy!”

As long as she’s not very unhappy at your nursery pick-up, try to let this one go. Often parents will get warm greetings the first few days or weeks of being at school. Once children have settled in to the habit of school, the need for big greetings can subside.  This means they have created positive relationships with teachers, and, while they are happy to see parents, it’s not the big relief that came before they were comfortable with such a separation. This is normal. If she is very unhappy at pick-up, write again with those details and I will answer.

That she seems jealous when you share your attention with others means she loves you and enjoys your attention herself. When she tells you to shut the laptop or holds your head, at least validate her wants with your words. You might say, “I know you want to spend time together,” and then either do spend time or follow with, “I love you too and I have to finish my work right now.”

I hope this helps.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

 

 

Child Chewing on Clothes

chewing

Hi Dr. Rene,

My six-year-old son has a habit of chewing on his shirts. He frequently comes home from school with his collar and sleeves in tatters. I really think he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. When he does it at home, I can gently remind him to stop, and he does. But when he’s at school, I’m not there to remind him not to do it. Any thoughts on getting him past this?
Sincerely,

Hannah, mom of two

Dear Hannah,

There are a variety of reasons cited for children mindlessly chewing on clothes. Some suggest chewing may assist children with focus and attention. It is along the lines of giving kids a koosh-ball for focused fidgeting in the classroom. Others suggest some children just need more physical movement and sitting still causes built up tension.  These may be sensory-seeking children with a need for more oral stimulation or physical stimulation overall. For others it may be a self-soothing activity like thumb sucking or hair twirling. The chewing may help the child calm from negative emotions. However it started, for some children it just becomes a habit.

There are just as many suggestions on how to curb the unwanted behavior. Following the koosh-ball idea, there are chew bracelets, necklaces (such as phitens or chewelery), chewy tubes, grabbers, chewing pencil toppers, teething balls, coffee stirers and small nuk brushes. Several parents on Listserves suggest a wash cloth then strips of a wash cloth for children to chew as needed. Children may enjoy brushing their teeth often with a soft toothbrush. I tend to prefer the replacement activities such as counting the back of their teeth with their tongue or chewing healthy, crunchy snacks (think apple slices and carrots often) or sugar-free chewing gum.

It may be worthwhile to test if more physical movement opportunities and movement breaks during the day help. This might include taking your child to the playground in the morning, providing lots of gross motor activities indoors and out and being sure there are recess and P.E. breaks at school. Plan for your child to have challenges around carrying, pushing, pulling, climbing and swimming.

It may also be helpful to teach your child other ways to self soothe. This may be deep breathing, slow or backward counting, visualization, meditation or mantras. You might provide a lovey to sleep with and cuddle. If the chewing seems to be ramping up, it is worth checking for any stress your child may be feeling.

When you do see the behavior be sure you are gently saying, “take that out of your mouth,” or, “clothes stay out of your mouth,” rather than, “stop chewing on that,” or, “don’t chew.” Ask his teacher to do the same everytime. I would pair this with one of the other options like a chew bracelet or gum. Each time redirect him to what he can chew. Avoid nagging, yelling or disciplining the chewing. This increased negative attention often backfires. The long term idea is most children outgrow this behavior on their own but it can take a while.

If it doesn’t lessen soon and considerably with your consistent efforts, you might take a consultation with a pediatric occupational therapist who is familiar with chewing for ideas beyond mine.

A good related article:

http://www.kidzworld.co.za/development/does-your-child-chew-on-her-clothes-and-pencils.html

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Teaching Children Thankfulness

There are so many great ways to teach children thankfulness.

  • Say “Thank you” as often as you can – Model manners. If you expect them to say “please” and “thank you” often, you’ll need to model it yourself. It can be helpful to include a bit about why you are saying “thank you.” Meaning say, “thank you for holding the door,” or, “thank you for speaking nicely to your sister.”
  • Discuss things you appreciate and are thankful for each day – This is more general, but it is voicing appreciation. This may be, “I really enjoy the orange and red leaves in our neighborhood in the fall,” or ,”I appreciate how much you helped your brother picking up his room this morning.”
  • Encourage children to voice one good thing that happened each day – Maybe at the dinner table or during tuck-in, encourage children to find one good thing that happened each day. Occasionally, I will throw in a one bad, crazy or surprising thing, but most days it’s good.
  • Plan a weekly thankfulness conversation at dinner – Many of us save this conversation for the Thanksgiving dinner. The idea is to have this conversation weekly. Encourage each person at the table to state one thing they are thankful for.
  • Give opportunity for children to do nice and helpful things for others – This may be helping a neighbor sweep their sidewalk or sharing a toy with a child who is playing alone at the playground. Discuss with your child after how good it can feel to think of others and how they would be thankful if someone helped them that way.
  • Encourage generosity – Encourage your children to help sort through their clothes and toys to donate. Talk about how this helps other people who may be in need. Discuss how you are thankful for the things you have and thankful you are able to share.
  • Write and help them to write Thank You notes – While this may seem a lost art, it is helpful for children to regularly write thank you notes. For sure after birthdays and holidays, but also other times as it seems fit. Maybe they write a thank you note to their teacher at the end of the school year.

Thanksgiving Day Parenting Tips

Thanksgiving day without children can be hectic between travel time, visiting family, cooking and cleaning. Add a seven, four and two-year-old to the mix, and it can feel overwhelming. Here are a few ideas to help with the day:

  • Do what you can ahead – This may be baking desserts, making and freezing side dishes the days before or really cleaning the house over the weekend.
  • Hire out what you can – I cheat. Each year I have at least one store bought dessert and side dish that I may claim as my own. Not a luxury I have often, but occasionally we have a housecleaning service before the holidays and out of town guests.
  • Keep children busy during prep – If you have an extra adult who is available outside the kitchen, have them lead a nature walk or help children to browse toy catalogs to cut and paste a Holiday wish list. If they are really gung-ho, provide a pre-formed ginger bread house with frosting and decorations (left over halloween candy in my house) for the children to make a centerpiece.
  • OR Involve them during prep – If they are old enough, include them in the preparations. Children can color placemats, write menus, butter vegetables, knead pie crust, take drink orders and set tables.
  • Stick to normal routines – This means mealtimes and naps as much as you can.  This can go a long way towards a pleasant day for all.
  • Include kid-friendly food – I tend to think traditional Thanksgiving food is pretty kid-friendly. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be sure there will be mashed potatoes or mac and cheese if it’s a favorite.
  • Use contribution during the meal – Children love to help. Encourage them to butter rolls, carry plates or refold napkins as needed.
  • Discipline in private – To provide a pleasant mealtime for all, step away from the table for discipline.
  • Set expectations a bit lower – Remember they are children. It can be a challenging day particularly if they’ve travelled, are not sleeping in their own room or sharing their room with a cousin.

Vacation Pool Safety

Dear Dr. Rene,

We are going to the beach this Friday with two other families. 11 kids, ranging in age from 14 to two-and-a-half. Megan, my youngest is two-and-a-half years old. The next youngest is six, and all of the older kids can already swim well. The house has a pool, and I’m scared to death about it. Megan is a bit fearless, and my fear is that she will wonder down there, and no one will notice. We obviously plan to watch her closely, but I know that my eyes can’t be on her 24-7. I know of two people that lost kids right around this age to drowning. How do I talk to her and emphasize that she is never to go near the pool without one of the adults without scaring her? I want to scare her a little, but not too much.

Sincerely, Sarah

Dear Sarah,

Part of the difficulty here is at two-and-a-half years old you can teach them about safety, talk, warn them and review, but you can’t rely on them to be good at it at all. I would find a few key phrases, stated in the positive and start saying them now with lots of repetition. My sentence might be along the lines of, “you go to the pool with mommy,” “mommy must go to the pool with you,” and, “you must have mommy at the pool.”  When you get to the beach house, go down to the pool together and talk about how she has to have mommy to go to the pool. You might ask, “do you go alone?” “no” (in a light tone). “Do you go to the pool with a friend?” “no.” “Who do you go to the pool with?” “Mommy! You only go to the pool with mommy.” I would review this with her, in a light tone throughout the vacation time. This does put pressure on you to be available for the pool often, but better to narrow it to you rather than say an adult in general which relies more on her for safety. She may think if there are adults or the 14 year old around the pool that’s enough.

The next thing I would do is lock the gates and doors in and out to the pool. If a door leads straight from the house into the pool area, I might block it with a dresser. I would also let all the children know, Megan is ONLY allowed to be at or in the pool with you. If any of them see her at or in the pool, they should lead her out and come get you. If you still feel worried, you might ask if they provide or provide your own pool alarm. Gate alarms starts at $30, pool-wave alarms at $70. All that said, watch her like a hawk.

I hope this helps!

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Helping Kids Speak Up for Themselves

This post is for parents whose children lack an assertive voice. When Alicen was a toddler, if someone took a toy or did something she didn’t like, she would just stand there or cry. When she was a preschooler, she would sadly walk away or come bury her face against my leg. She didn’t have an assertive voice. She didn’t readily stand up for herself.

There is a series of steps to teaching children an assertive voice. Again, this is not a quick fix. We started this process with Alicen six years ago, and we continue to work on it in small ways. Clearly she has made great progress, but we are still addressing the issues. If you have a child who lacks assertive voice, you’ll have to make a decision about which steps are necessary depending on age and comfort level.

The first thing I ask any child, whether they are at the first step or the last, whether they are two or seven years old, is, “did you like that?” It gets kids turned around. They stop thinking, “oh, poor me. I am so sad,” and they start thinking, “no. I didn’t like that.” They start to think about standing up for themselves.

For the remainder of this example, let’s assume another child took a toy your child was playing with. After you ask, “did you like that?” the entry step is to then go with the child and do the talking for them. Take their hand, walk with them to the other child and say calmly, “they weren’t done with that. they’d like to finish their turn.” You are modeling the language that you hope the child will some day take as their own. Eventually, you want them to say, “I wasn’t done with that. I’d like to finish my turn.”

Once they are comfortable with that, you can move to the next step. After asking whether they liked that, go with them and provide an example of what to say on the way. You might take your child’s hand and say, “when we get there, say, ‘I’m not done,’ or, ‘I want that back.’” Hopefully, you arrive at the other child, and your child will try out the language you suggested. This step may take several attempts. It took many exchanges before Alicen actually spoke up for herself. For quite a while, I would give examples, we would arrive at the other child, and Alicen would just look up at me blankly. If this happens, continue to model the language.

Once they are comfortable speaking up when you provide examples, think about stepping out a bit more. First, you can give examples, and then, stay back while they go over alone. After you ask if they liked that, you can say, “ok, I’m going to stay here; when you go over, you can say, ‘I want to finish my turn.’” Or, you can go with them and prompt them to come up with the language on their own. You can say, “I’ll go with you. What are you going to say to them?”

Whichever path you take, the next step is to have them come up with the language and go over on their own. This is the last step, and this is where Alicen continues to be today. She’ll run up to me at the playground and say, “she took that from me!” I’ll ask, “did you like that?” She’ll reply, “no, I didn’t!” I’ll ask, “what are you going to say?” She’ll reply, “I’m going to tell her that I want to finish my turn.” I’ll say, “okay, go try that,” and off she’ll go. I’m not really doing much. She is just rebounding off me. I am there providing support. I assume that when she is away from me, she is handling much of this on her own.

What if your child uses their assertive voice, and it doesn’t work? You coach them, and they bravely walk over and say, “I wasn’t done with that. I’d like it back please.” The other child rolls their eyes and says, “so what? I’m playing with it now.” As a parent you have choices. I think any of them are fine, just think about it ahead of time. Be prepared.  You might mention it to their parents and hope for support. You might go over and reiterate for your child. Another child might be more willing to listen to you than to your child. You might let your child know that they did the right thing. They used the right language, but sometimes things don’t work out as we plan. This is true in life. As adults, we might ask another in a restaurant, “could you light that in a few minutes? We’re about to leave.” The other patron rolls their eyes and say, “So what? I’m smoking it now.” Sometimes things don’t work out as we plan.

Then, I think of Claire and other children who fall at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Even as a toddler, she told people what she thought when she thought it. I have seen other children who speak out a bit too loudly when they are assertive. As long as no one is getting hurt, I want children to keep their assertive voices. Rather than disciplining a child for being too loud at this, parents should coach and model other ways for children to better express themselves.

Contribution – Getting Kids to Help

Contribution is getting children involved in the process of daily living. It is giving them jobs, so they can be productively engaged. When children are participating in family function, there is less need for discipline. This is very much in line with the Montessori philosophy. In a Montessori classroom, children are preparing snack, serving snack and cleaning up the snack area, even at two years old. There is little misbehavior around snacktime because it is their job, they take pride in it. The are fully engaged in positive behavior, so there is less time for the negative.

Starting at two years old, I think children should be contributing at home throughout the day. If you are folding laundry, they can be matching socks. If you are preparing a meal, they can be matching cups to lids or taking drink orders. Older children, who are buttering rolls or serving green beans, bypass the time for arguing, video games and to complain about what’s for dinner. You avoid the need for discipline by making them part of the process.

In the classroom, if my teachers are getting art supplies ready for the next day, there should be children helping them. They might be helping pour paint or matching papers. Yes, this takes longer and can be more of a mess, but the next day those helper children are a little more excited to be there.

Go wide with how they help. Setting the table every night for dinner sounds like more of a chore (I like chores and chores for allowance, but this is something different). Contribution includes drawing placemats, writing menus, folding napkins and serving food. Shake it up by suggesting different ways to contribute each day.

When they do contribute, take the help however it comes. Resist the urge to correct their helpfulness. Let’s say you have been working for a week with your six-year-old on how to make their bed. One morning they come to you excitedly and say, “mommy, I made my bed without you!” When you go to see it, find something nice to say about that bed. Even if it’s not what you’d hoped for, say something like, “this corner is so straight!” and leave the bed. If you take this moment to correct, or you wait til they go to school to remake the bed, you are squashing their contribution. It’s better to wait until the next morning and catch them before they make it to reteach.

Contribution teaches life skills, builds intrinsic motivation, and creates a sense of belonging and community.

For more on chores and allowance please read: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/chores-by-age/ and https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/chores-for-earning-allowance/.

Calm Parenting – Take Care of Yourself First

I speak with so many moms in our workshops, and lately a common complaint is they are “running on empty.” Moms comment they aren’t getting enough sleep, aren’t eating well and feel increasingly stressed. Basically, they just aren’t taking care of themselves. Some cite the time crunch, others the effort after taking care of everyone else in the family. Whatever the cause, feeling empty is such a difficult way to come at parenting.

  • Sleep – It’s suggested that most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. The National Sleep Foundation provides this article on sleep needs: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need.
  • Nutrition – I’ve never been one to count calories or limit foods, but, as I am getting older, I can feel food choices impacting my mood and energy levels. HelpGuide.org provides this interesting article on nutrition guidelines for women: http://www.helpguide.org/life/healthy_eating_women_nutrition.htm.
  • Stress – When you can directly manage the stressor, all the better. It’s best if you can cut back on work hours or better design your schedule, and relieve stress at the source. If not, here is an article with so many great suggestions for managing stress: http://childdevelopmentinfo.com/parenting/stress.shtml.
  • Exercise – When I can fit in exercise, I feel great. It is so hard to find the time and energy. I am inspired by one of our preschool teacher/moms who fits exercise in in small ways throughout the day. She lunges to take out the trash and stretches before she sits for each meal. Apparently, a little at a time adds up in beneficial ways. For lots of great tips about exercising read: http://exercise.about.com/od/fittinginexercise/tp/stayathomeexercise.htm, and visit a great blog at  http://www.exercisingmom.com/.
  • Relax – Do whatever it is that helps you relax. Read, run, sing, dance, wine with friends, walks in the park or nature hikes. The more you can refresh and recharge before you take on parenting, the better!

How Choices Work in Positive Discipline

Child looking for direction

When offering choices in discipline, the goal is to offer two positive choices for the child that both meet your goal in parenting. These choices can focus on the how, what, when or where. Let’s say you need to have the playroom cleaned up. Offering choices about how could include, “would you like to start by yourself or with help?” or, “would you like to throw the balls or drop them in the basket?” Choices about what may include, “would you like to start with the blocks or the balls first?” or, “would you like to start with red toys or blue toys?” A choice about when would be, “would you like to clean before bath or before bed?” A choice about where would be, “would you like to start on this side of the room or that?”

Choices work because the child gets to have some power. Choices elicit cooperation; the child willingly does what you want her to do because she gets to make a decision. This is especially true for young children under five years old because they have very little power in their day. They are often told where to go, when to go and to be quiet while they are going there. If you ask a three-year-old who is hemming about having to take medicine, “would you like it with a spoon or a dropper?” and they reply, “dropper,” they are more willing to take the medicine because of their newly found sense of control.

The choices don’t have to be important ones. For that child who is hesitant to take medicine, you could offer, “would you like it with juice or water?” The next night ask, “standing or sitting?” The next night ask, “in the kitchen or in the bathroom?” None of these choices are terribly important in the process, but they tend to gain compliance for the parenting goal of downing the medicine.

To be fair, both options must be good for the child. Steer clear of offering one positive and one negative option. I think of Alicen, who makes a lot of noise throughout the day; she hums, whistles and sings. By the end of the day, it can be a bit much. When we are all in the kitchen getting ready for dinner, I might say, “you can do that in here very quietly or out in the foyer loud.” Neither of those options is particularly bad. If I offered one positive and one negative, I might say, “you can do that in here quietly or go to your room.” In this case, my language is manipulative. I am saying, “here is a bad and here is a good; now which do you want?” Children typically understand this and think, “well, duh! Nobody wants the bad.” They are forced to choose the one you want them to choose. That is not a choice; it is a consequence and should be stated as such: “If you do not quiet down, I will send you to your room.” When there is one positive and one negative, it is a given what will happen; it is not a choice. Rather than provide a false choice that is actually a consequence like “you can mow the lawn today or be grounded; which do you want?” parents will get better results by stating the cause and effect clearly, “if you do not mow the lawn, I will ground you.”

In most discipline, choices come after any needed “I” messages or empathy but before consequences. As you enter into discipline, it is best to address emotions first. Help yourself and your child to calm and manage emotions before you try to discipline or to fix the situation. Once that is done or if that is not needed, think choices before consequences. Choices work because they elicit cooperation. Children are often happy to do the thing you want them to do. Negative logical consequences work because you are putting your foot down. Children are often resentful of the process or angry that you just trumped them. The order of response would be to lead with the choice.

First: “Do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?”

And then, if necessary, follow that up with a logical consequence.

Second: “If don’t get dressed now, we will lose our time for the playground.”

This puts the happy option first and follows up with the less agreeable way if happiness fails. The other order – consequence first followed by choice – is usually less effective. Children will be less willing to choose if you were just firm with them. An example would look like: “if you do not get dressed right now, we’ll lose our time for the playground. Now which do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?” You already put your foot down, so it is far less attractive to take you up on a choice. Choices should come first because they are flexible and open. Consequences are closed; there is a built-in outcome.

There are a few exceptions to the “choices first” guideline. Aggressive behaviors tend to go straight to consequences. Hitting, kicking, biting and screaming in someone’s face are behaviors that do not have choices available; they just don’t. In those cases, I tend to think consequences first after attending to and offering empathy to the “victim.”

There are a few expected stages in development when choices can be especially effective.  At various ages, many children are driven to gain independence in particular ways. Around two to three years old, most children are driven to do things for themselves. Parents of toddlers and preschoolers often hear, “I’ll do it myself.” It is helpful if parents can offer choices such as, “would you like to do it by yourself or with help?”

Around six years old, children tend to push for more control over their schedule and routines. It can be helpful if parents offer choices such as, “would you like to read books or color now?” or, “let’s invite a playdate. Would you like to call Lindsey or Emily to play?” Around eight years old, children may push for more physical independence.  Choices such as, “would you all like to sit with us or a few aisles away?” can be helpful.  In the pre-teen years, children tend to need more privacy. Parents can offer choices such as, “would you all like some time alone in your room or in the basement?” If children feel thwarted in their push for independence, they may become evasive in their efforts. If you feel struggles happening over these pushes for new independence, it is most helpful to examine the amount of control you are exerting over your children.

Children benefit from practice at making decisions. Kohn states that children “learn to make good decisions by making decisions.” Ideally, you are offering these choices throughout the day, not just in discipline. Asking questions like, “would you like peanut butter or ham and cheese?” or, “do you want to play blocks or balls?” provides children with safe opportunities to practice making choices. These opportunities are out of the moment of discipline. There is less hanging in the balance. The better children get at weighing the options and making decisions when the decisions are not weighted with importance, the better they’ll handle choices within discipline. When my children came to me at seven years old and asked, “what should I do about this?” I wanted to be able to give it back to them by asking, “what do you think you should do?” To gain experience problem-solving – to come up with and weigh options –  children need practice.

As a general guideline, when children are under five years old, provide only two choices. If you open the closet and ask a three-year-old, “what would you like to wear?” the choices can be overwhelming. Children will let you know when they are ready for wider choices. You might ask, “do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?” If they reply, “how about the green,” they are likely ready for more options. By all means, if green is another sweatshirt which meets your parenting goal, it is fine. If the green is a party dress, and you are headed to the muddy playground, you might say, “I really like the green too, but today it is red or blue.” It is fine to reiterate choices. If this strategy still doesn’t work, you can choose for them, but you have to let them know that is coming. You could say, “this is taking a long time. You can choose, or I will choose for you.” Most kids will choose immediately because they don’t want to lose that power. This shift should not sound like, “okay. This is taking too long; I choose the blue.” If you swoop in and take their power without warning, you will surely be met by upset or tantrums.

While choices often work, sometimes, they just don’t. You warn children to make a choice, and they fall to pieces. Or, they do make a choice, but then throw it down and run from the room screaming. When choices fail, you can fall back on consequences. Moving to consequences also prevents you from being bogged down by choices. Occasionally, we have a parent who says that choices don’t work because, for example, “my child says ‘no’ to the initial offer, so I come up with other choices, and she just refuses every option,” or, “we go in circles all day because he’ll pick something and then change his mind and fight for the other.” In these scenarios, the child has led the use of choices into a power struggle. The idea is to offer one set of choices, encourage a decision, and then move forward. If choices break down, move to consequences rather than join in the struggle by offering a series of choices. If the choices initially work and then a bit later the child starts to lose interest, it is fine to offer a second set of choices to keep the momentum going. It is successful if you are cleaning the playroom together and initially offer, “would you like to start with the blocks or the balls?” and the child chooses and starts picking up the blocks. If interest fades six minutes later, you can offer another set of choices, “do you want to finish the blocks by yourself or with help?”

Another possible challenge with choices, is when a child will choose one, but then push for the other. Let’s say you offer, “would you like cereal or oatmeal?” The child chooses oatmeal, you make it, and as you set it on the table the child says, “no! I want cereal.” At that late point, if you then make the cereal, the child will push for the second option often. There is more power in getting you to make two. If you want that push to end, offer empathy around the first choice, but stick with it through the upset. Say “I know you like cereal. I am sorry, but I’ve already made the oatmeal, and that’s what is for breakfast. You are welcome to cereal tomorrow.” It may take a few times of sticking with the first choice, but if you are consistent, the push for the second thing should lessen. If you have a child who does this often, you can confirm before making the oatmeal. After you have offered and child chooses, you can say, “I heard you, you picked cereal. I am going to make it, and we are going to stick with it. Do you understand?” At least then you’ll feel better about sticking with the first choice.

Choices are flexible and work because they share power with the child. They also teach decision-making and often result in a more peaceful exchange than consequences.

%d bloggers like this: