discipline

How Charting Behaviors Helps: Tantrums and Aggression

Angry little boy glaring and fighting with his brother

Charting behaviors like tantrums or aggression is often done by teachers in the classroom, so they can quickly gain a better understanding of what is happening. It is something parents can easily do at home. Charting means keeping detailed and consistent notes about the behavior. If a child were tantruming often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every tantrum I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs child was about to tantrum (cues)
  • How long it lasted
  • What they did during
  • How they calmed down
  • What happened after

Once you’ve taken notes for several tantrums, you can look across the notes for patterns. If it’s always the same time of day, maybe move snack earlier or rearrange that time of the day. If it’s the same place or happening when interacting with the same children, look at how you can change the space or separate the children. Coach the triggers directly. If turn taking triggered your child’s tantrums, make a plan to coach turn taking later in the day by reading a story about taking turns, role play taking turns or give a puppet show about taking turns. The idea is to teach them how to better manage when the trigger happens. Use the cues to better intervene before future tantrums. For some children, a cue would be their voice going up a notch or getting really whiney before the tantrum starts. If you know the cue and know the tantrum is about to start, you can intervene just before with empathy, positive intent or choices to calm and distract away from the tantrum.

Here’s a helpful post about using triggers and cues to lessen tantrums.

By charting the behavior and reviewing your notes, you are in a much better place to address the tantrums.

Likewise, if a child were being aggressive often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every aggressive behavior I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs the child was about to be aggressive (cues)
  • What actually happened
  • What happened after
  • Any discipline given

Again, this information is meant to show patterns and give you a better chance to intervene and in the long run curb the aggression. If it’s a particular time, place or person, make changes accordingly. Triggers are what sets off the behavior, and cues are signs it’s about to happen. Children who are aggressive often tend to have fairly consistent triggers and cues. You can coach the triggers, and intervene on the cues.

A few years ago, I got a phone call from a preschool. They had a two-year-old girl who was biting people often. My first questions included, “who is she biting? Where is she biting? And, when is she biting?” and, “did you notice any triggers or cues?” The answers were all, “good question.” So they took notes for a week. When we spoke again they said, “We can see it coming. She only bites people if they approach her, and she is holding stuff.” It’s a don’t touch my stuff bite. Knowing that, the teachers can focus on teaching her to say “stop,” or “mine,” when others approach. They can have her sit down, or just stay within arms reach when they see her holding stuff. They also noticed consistent cues. They said, “she gets this wild look in her eye, her mouth flies open, and then she lunges.” Scary as that is, the wild look gives them a few second to remind her to say “mine,” or hold her or say “freeze,” or say “run,” to the other child.

Here is a helpful post about discipline for aggression.

Ways to Avoid Discipline with Your Children

In my workshops, I teach the steps of positive discipline. This language includes the flexible use of I messages, empathy, positive intent, choices and consequences to best manage behaviors. This framework is meant to guide parents through addressing emotions while curbing behaviors. If you want to learn more about these steps, you can search “steps” or “discipline” on our blog. As much as this is an effective approach, there are several things parents can do to avoid the discipline process. This is especially true for repeat behaviors as parents should be better able to see these coming.

  • Distraction – Two children start to argue over a shovel in the sandbox. If you can say, “hey, look! A puppy!” and it’s over, I think that’s fine. There will be so may times when this doesn’t work, and you’ll need the discipline, but when it does that’s fine.
  • Humor – Say something funny, and it’s over? Okay.
  • Logistics – A mom in one of my workshops said, “it is so difficult every morning to get the kids to stop playing and go down to the foyer to get their shoes on. They can go right back and play, I just need their shoes on.” Solving this with logistics would be moving the shoes to where the kids are playing. If a well placed baby gate solves your situation, there’s no need to work through the steps repeatedly.
  • Schedules – Often, a discipline exchange is sparked by a transition or by having to little time to complete too much activity. For transitions, be sure to give consistent warnings and give children choices and jobs while moving through. For schedules, be sure to plan for the time and build in a little extra for children.
  • Routines – If your discipline happens during specific times of the day like getting kids ready and out of the house in the morning or getting them in pajamas and ready for bed, routines can be a big part of the answer. Decide the time you need to be done, make a list of everything that needs to be done and work backwards. It can be helpful to make a chart with your children by taking pictures of them moving through the routine or drawing pictures of each step. The more consistently you follow the routine the more helpful it tends to be.

Natural vs. Logical Consequences

Natural and logical consequences are meant to be the end of a discipline exchange. In the moment and over time, they are meant to curb behaviors.

It is important to note consequences are very rarely meant to be a starting point in the discipline process. There are so many other better places to start. You might think first of being proactive with positive directions and descriptive praise. You might address behaviors with empathy, positive intent, choices, contribution or challenges prior to using consequences. That said, sometimes consequences are a necessary piece.

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences are what just might happen if the child continues the behavior.  This sounds like, “if you don’t finish your homework, you might get a bad grade,” and, “if you don’t wear a coat, you might be cold.” These are things that naturally happen in life and without our intervention. While you can state natural consequences to younger children, these start to make sense and work better to curb behaviors somewhere between three-and-a-half to four years old for many children.

The first part of using natural consequences is to state this to your child. The next is to allow them to make a decision and avoid rescuing them if they continue the behavior. Let’s say you are arguing with your five-year-old about wearing their coat outside, and it is cold. You say, “if you go outside like that, you might be really cold.” Child says, “fine,” and opens the door. If you throw their coat on them the second the cold air hits, you will have this battle again tomorrow. Yes, take the coat with you but let the child feel a bit of the consequence. The natural consequence of feeling cold will help to curb the next debate. I am not saying be stubborn and leave the coat home, take it with you, but let the child feel the cold before giving it to them.

Logical Consequences

Logical consequences can be stated in the negative or the positive. A logical negative consequence is stated if there is bad behavior then there’s a bad related consequence such as, “if you leave the toys all over the floor, we are closing the playroom for the afternoon.” A logical positive consequence is stated if there’s good behavior then there’s good related consequence, such as “if you get the toys cleaned up we can have 5 more minutes to play.”

To be fair, your consequence should match your child’s behavior in time, intensity and content. Matching in time means as immediate as possible. For children three-and-a-half years old and younger, it means immediate. Matching in intensity means the level of consequence matches the level of their behavior (not bigger, you are just being punitive). Matching in content means it is on topic with the behavior. If a child is saying mean things to their sibling, a matched-content consequence would be having to play in separate rooms or finding five nice things to say about their sibling. A non-matched consequence would be taking away a TV time or no dessert. The idea is to keep them thinking on topic.

Examples

Your child grabs a toy from a friend.

Natural: If you grab toys, he might not want to play with you.

Logical Negative: If you grab a toy, you may not have a turn with it.

Logical Positive: If you can give it back nicely, I will be sure you have the next turn.

Your child is fighting getting into the car seat in the morning.

Natural: If this takes too long, we might be late, and you might miss centers.

Logical Negative: If you are out of your seat, we aren’t going (only use this one if not going would be a negative to your child, AND you mean it). Smaller ones would be no music or toys in the car if you usually have them.

Logical Positive: If you get in your seat quickly, you can pick the music.

Got a behavior of concern, and you’d like answers? Post them here.

Steps of Positive Discipline Defined

The steps of positive discipline are designed to give parents a framework for moving through a discipline exchange. The idea is to learn each and be flexible in the moment.

I messages label your or another person’s emotions and explains why you are feeling this way. This avoids you messages which blame the child. Rather, blame the behavior or the situation. This blame can be global (“no one is listening”) or passive (“this is a mess”).  Rule: When you are the angriest person in the room or laying blame.

Empathy labels your child’s emotions and validates why they feel that way. This can also be given through wants or wishes (“you wanted to win the game”) or storytelling (“I remember when I was little and that happened to me…”). Rule: When your kids are bent out of shape and need a bit of help to calm.

Positive intent is giving those you love the benefit of the doubt. This means thinking of them as tired not lazy and needing to learn social skills not rude. This is more a shift in thinking than it is a shift in language. Rule: At least think it every time.

Choices are two positives for the child that meet your goal as a parent. Rule: Choices (challenges or contribution) before consequences as best you can.

  • Challenges are making it a game or a race, making it fun.
  • Contribution means giving the child a job to gain the behavior or keep them on track.

Natural consequences are what just might happen in life if the child chooses or continues a given behavior. These start to make more sense around three-and-a-half or four years old. Rule: State and allow the child to experience. Avoid rescuing.

Logical consequences should match the child’s behavior in time (as soon as possible and immediate under three years old), intensity (at the same level) and content (on topic with the behavior).

  • Logical positive consequences are the good related outcome to the positive behavior. Rule: Works a lot like choices.
  • Logical negative consequences are the bad related outcome to the negative behavior. Rule: Meant as an endpoint, and only allowed for starters with aggressive behavior.

*You have asked your child to clean up his toys, he just stands there looking at you.

  • I messages: “I’m frustrated, no one is listening.”
  • Empathy: “I know you don’t like cleaning.”
  • Positive intent: “It is so much fun to play.”
  • Choices: “Do you want to start with blocks or balls?”
  • Challenges: Can he clean up the blocks before you clean up the cars?
  • Contribution: Make him the Clean-up Supervisor with a check list for jobs.
  • Natural: “If you leave your toys out, they might get lost or broken.”
  • Logical positive: “If you clean them up now, we can have five more minutes to play.”
  • Logical negative: “If you leave them out, I will put them on the shelf for two days.”

*One child is yelling at another over taking turns with a toy.

  • I messages: “He is upset, he doesn’t like being yelled at.”
  • Empathy: “I know you are angry, it is hard to wait.”
  • Positive intent: “You really want a turn.”
  • Choices: “Do you want to try again with a whisper or your regular voice?”
  • Challenges: Can he list three other things he can do while waiting for his turn?
  • Contribution: Show the child 10 minutes on the clock, and put them in charge of letting you know when the time is up (but not a second earlier).
  • Natural: “If you are yelling, she might not play with you.”
  • Logical positive: “If you can speak nicely, you can stay together.”
  • Logical negative: “If you are yelling, you will have to play in another room.”

In Discipline: Whoever Starts It Gets to Finish

There is a golden rule in discipline when you are parenting as a couple. It is simple, whoever starts it gets to finish. This means if the first parent is into a discipline exchange, as long as it’s not abusive, the second parent avoids intervening, correcting the first, rescuing the child, taking over or undermining in any way. If the second parent must say something, they should err on the side of supporting the first or offer to help. If the offer to help is declined, it’s declined.

When I have seen a discipline exchange going south fast for my husband, I have offered to help. Sometimes he says, “no thanks, I got it.” Other times he says, “yes, take them. It’s your turn.” If the former, I say, “listen to your father.” I reserve the right to make a note of the situation and discuss it with him after and away from the children. If the latter, I move forward in discipline.

If you don’t offer and just move in, or if you offer and move in even though you were declined, you are making your partner’s job harder the next go around. It can be very hard, but there is a need to let them build an individual parent-child relationship. Both parents should be able to feel confident in their interactions and discipline exchanges.

If you disagree often over discipline, you may want to spend time working through it apart from the children. You might read Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage by Pruett and Pruett. You might also take my live or audio workshop on Parenting as a Couple.

 

 

How Intermittent Reinforcement Makes Parenting Harder

I apologize, to cover intermittent reinforcement, we are going to stop discussing children, and we are going to start discussing lab rats. We’ll come back to children at the end of this post.
Intermittent reinforcement is the strongest pattern of reinforcement there is. Let’s compare lab rat A and lab rat B. They are living beside each other in cages that have a lever to push for food pellets. Lab rat A gets consistent reinforcement. Every time he pushes his lever, a food pellet drops out. Push, pellet, push, pellet, push, pellet. It’s not very exciting. In fact, after a while, it’s boring. Lab rat A will only push that lever for pellets until he is full. After that, he’ll leave it alone and only come back when he is hungry again.
Lab rat B gets intermittent reinforcement. As much as he pushes, there is a pellet every once in a while. Sometimes, it takes two pushes to get a pellet, sometimes it takes eight, and sometimes it takes as many as seventeen pushes. Then, four pushes gets the next pellet. It is unpredictable and exciting. In fact, after a while, it’s downright addictive. Lab rat B will push that lever long past the point of being full. He will push that lever until he’s exhausted, and then come back later to push some more. He will stock pile pellets because sometimes this thing works and sometimes it doesn’t. Every time it works and a pellet drops, he is happy and a bit surprised.
Let’s say the pellets stop altogether, no more pellets. Lab rat A will push a few times, but he thinks, “oh, this thing is broken. It used to always work and now it doesn’t. This thing is broken.” He’ll walk away and come back only when he is hungry again. Even then, he’ll only press it a few times.
When the pellets stop, lab rat B will push that lever until he keels over out of exhaustion and then, he’ll get right back up and push it some more. He thinks, “darn it, this thing’s got to work. Sometimes it took two pushes. I remember it took seventeen presses one time; that’s my new goal. Eventually this thing will work. Maybe it’ll be the next press.” He’ll keep at it for a quite a while, and he’ll come back far more often than lab rat A.
Now, let’s go back to children. Child A gets consistent reinforcement for tantrumming. Going down the candy aisle, she starts to tantrum, so you give her a candy bar. Tantrum, candy bar, tantrum, candy bar. It’s not very exciting; in fact, it’s boring. You’ll see that behavior when the child feels it is warranted. If the parent wises up and decides, “no more candy bars at the store,” child A may tantrum a little while, but she thinks, “wow, you are broken. This used to always work on you and now, it doesn’t.”
Child B gets intermittent reinforcement for tantrumming. Going down the candy aisle, she starts to tantrum, so you give a candy bar, tantrum, say you’ll leave the store, tantrum, you ignore her the rest of the trip, tantrum, you say “no,” she tantrums six more minutes, you give in and say, “whatever, it’s just a candy bar.” If the parent wises up and decides, “no more candy bars at the store,” child B will tantrum way longer and harder than child B because she thinks, “sometimes this works with you. I remember it took six minutes one time; that’s my new goal.”
What I am saying is that, if you give in to tantrumming every tenth time because you are tired or it’s just a cookie, you are more strongly reinforcing tantrumming than if you gave in every time right away. I am not telling you to give in every time, right away. I am telling you to never give in because when you do, it makes your job harder. It encourages your child to tantrum more often. Giving intermittent reinforcement to negative behaviors is a disservice to all involved. When my children tantrum, it makes me firm to never reinforce their tantrumming behavior. I think, “I can’t give that to you, even if I wanted to. It would be bad for you; you would behave that way more often.”

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.

Child Says Caregiver Hit Him

Dear Dr. Rene,
My son, who is almost three and is quite verbal, just told us that his daycare provider hit him. It sounds as though she hit him during nap time when he was “moving around too much.” He said it hurt him, and he didn’t like her. The comment was unprovoked, and came as we were playing at home today (Saturday) – no discussion of daycare, no discussion or recent episodes of him hitting anyone and needing to be disciplined. In other words, I believe him (we have seen him make stories up about what other people have done a couple times, but it’s always been in the moment and for a direct gain, like getting a toy from another kid).
He’s been going to the same in-home provider since he was six months old, and he has always seemed very, very happy there. My husband and I think the world of her and are quite pleased with her and with the loving environment she provides the children. That said, we never had a conversation with her about discipline (since he started with her as a baby), and she comes from a fairly traditional background.
I suspect that she spanked him to discipline him with no intention of harming him, but we do not want him to be spanked. Do you have any suggestions for how to approach her about this? Or for how to talk about this with our son, or look for signs that things maybe aren’t as great as we thought they were? As further background, my son will be leaving her care soon to go to pre-school, but we now have our seven-month-old with her as well.
Sincerely, Karen
mom of two
Dear Karen,
I am sorry for this. It means the world to trust our children’s caregivers and feel confident as we drop them off. I want to start by saying, I believe him too. Part of the difficulty here is your child is shy of three years old, and children under six years old tend to be poor reporters, so, while I do think he was hit, getting any meaningful details beyond that is difficult at best. It may have been a light tap that startled him, or a real spank out of frustration. Asking more questions also easily leads his answers.
I think my best response would be to have a direct conversation with the caregiver. Start by letting her know what was said, ask about her discipline for small and big behaviors and let her know your guidelines. Be clear and firm in your limits of not spanking or otherwise using physical discipline. If you feel comfortable with her response and decide to stay, plan to be a good, open listener moving forward.
Honestly, I wouldn’t stay. Whatever her response, my concern is that the spanking seemed to happen over moving too much at naptime which in the big scheme of things is a relatively small behavior. My concern would be for her handling bigger behaviors such as pushing or biting. This is such a personal decision and difficult because you have a long history and otherwise high regards for her level of care. I hope this is helpful.
Sincerely, Rene

The Steps of Positive Discipline

The steps of Positive Discipline are not something I’ve created, these steps have been around for years. Originally written in 1965, Dr. Haim Ginott introduced a version of these steps in Between Parent and Child. Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, or STEP classes, desiged by Dinkmeyer and McKay have been in session since 1976. These steps are covered in some variation in most all Positive Discipline parenting books. We cover the steps of positive discipline in my one-day and eight hour evening series workshops. My full audio workshops are also available at www.askdrrene.com. Here are the basics to get you started:

  • I messages – This is labeling your own or others emotions and blaming the behavior not the child. When labeling your own emotions, it sounds like, “I am frustrated, no one is listening,” or, “I am upset, this is a huge mess.” Labeling others’ emotions sounds like, “she is upset, she wasn’t finished with her turn,” or, “she is angry, that hurt her.” This shares emotions and avoids You messages which blame the child such as, “I am frustrated, you never listen,” or, “she is angry, you hurt her.”
  • Empathy – This is validating the child’s emotions as you enter into a discipline exchange, even when you disagree with the emotion at hand. It is saying, “wow, you are mad, you didn’t like that game,” or, “I see you are sad, it’s hard to be left out.”  It’s remembering to validate emotions and help find a calm before you address the situation or discipline.
  • Positive Intent – This refers to how we view the child’s behavior. What we think and assume about their behavior, shapes our tone and our reply. This is thinking of those you love as tired or overwhelmed rather than lazy. For the child having trouble waiting for a turn, it is seeing them as excited, young and needing to learn patience rather than annoying or rude.
  • Choices – The idea is to offer the child two positive choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. If you are wanting them to get homework done, this might be, “do you want to start with reading or math,” or, “do you want to work before or after snack,” or, “do you want to work at the kitchen table or your bedroom desk?” These often work because they give the child some power.
  • Natural Consequences – This is what just might happen in life if the child continues the behavior. These warn and encourage the child to think about the possible outcomes. This sounds like, “if you don’t wear a coat, you might be cold,” and, “if you do that, she might not want to play with you.” These consequences start to make sense around three-and-a-half years old.
  • Logical Negative Consequences – This is, if the bad behavior; then the bad related outcome. “If you keep yelling, you will have to play in separate rooms,” or, “if you grab a toy, you may not play with it for 5 minutes.”
  • Logical Positive Consequences – This is, if the good behavior; then the good related outcome. “If you can speak nicely, you can stay together,” or, “if you can share the coloring books, I’ll get out the other markers.”

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.

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