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

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.

Best New Learning Builds on Previous Knowledge

When your child is challenged by a new problem, the idea is to remind them of what they already know and build from there. This can help make the task seem more manageable and provide a familiar strategy.

Let’s say your child has mastered 25 piece puzzles, and they are starting on a 60 piece puzzle for the first time. If they get to a point of frustration, you might remind them of previous strategies such as, “I remember the last puzzle, you started by finding all the edge pieces.” This helps them to break the big task into smaller tasks, and puts them on a familiar path towards problem solving.

When your third grader is starting to learn her multiplication tables, you might start by showing her how multiplication is repeat addition. She’s already mastered addition, so multiplication may seem a more managable task this way.

Corrections Shouldn’t Feel Like Corrections

The theme this week is working through problem solving with your children. Our third guideline is ‘corrections shouldn’t feel like corrections.’

This guideline is easier to follow with younger children. When a two-year-old says, “I need a ram-baid,” we don’t tend to correct in a heavy way such as, “no, you said that wrong! It is band-aid, not ram-baid.” Rather than feeling like a correction, you might say, “oh, you need a band-aid. let’s go get you a band-aid.” You might very clearly enunciate the correct word, but the words all together didn’t feel like a correction.

This guideline is harder to follow as children get older. When your fourth grader has gotten the last two math problems wrong, and is working through a third in the same incorrect way, it is common for parents to say, “no, you’re getting this one wrong too! Why aren’t you thinking?” When corrections feel like corrections, we tend to turn children off to the problem solving process. By all means, you may need to correct the math problems, just use lighter language. This might be something like, “I see your having some trouble working through, how can I help?” or, “hmmm, this seems tough. Why don’t you walk me through the last problem, and we’ll work together?” Yes, you are correcting, but it doesn’t feel like correction.

The idea here is to keep them engaged in the problem solving process.

Give Hints and Suggestions Not Answers

Continuing the theme of helping children become independent problem solvers, give hints and suggestions not outright answers.

A few examples:

  • When your first graders asks, “mommy, how do you spell elephant?” Avoid spelling it for them. Give hints and suggestions for how they can spell it. You might offer to help them learn to look it up in the dictionary. If your school encourages inventive spelling (and I hope they do through second grade), you might say, “listen to the word and try to figure out what sounds you hear, those are the letters to write down,” and then slowly, stretch out and clearly enunciate, “el-e-phant.” Here you are teaching them ways, not just to spell elephant, but also how to figure out future words.
  • When your fourth grader asks you for the answer to a long multiplication problem, you might offer to do the first step, or you might offer to work through another similar problem to teach them the steps, and then stay with them while they work through their own. You might offer to read aloud the pages of their textbook that cover how to solve these problems.

The idea is to give them enough to get back on track. You are supporting the problem solving process without doing the actual work for them. You are also hoping to provide them strategies for the next go around.

Ask Them How They Want to Be Helped

Whether your four-year-old is working on a hard puzzle, or your fourth grader is struggling through math homework, when they ask for your help, start by asking them how they would like to be helped. If you swoop in and give them your brand of helping, you may be doing too much, which discourages independent problem solving or frustrating the system.

I learned this the hard way. When my older daughter was learning to read, she asked me to please just give her the word when she got stuck. I explained that, if I just gave her the word, she wouldn’t learn how to best sound out words on her own. Her valid point back was that when she was reading and had to stop to sound out words, she would lose the storyline and be confused going forward. She also said she was getting plenty of practice sounding out new words at school, thank you very much. So, I started just giving her the words when she was stuck. This lasted a few months as she was gaining skills at school and then it tapered off.

When my younger daughter was learning to read, and she would get stuck on a word, I just gave it to her. We went on like this for the first several months. One day after I gave her a word, she stopped and said, “please stop doing that! If you keep giving me the words when I am stuck, I will never learn how to read them myself.” She was right, I was slowing her progress and should have asked her how she wanted to be helped.

Soon after they are old enough to ask for help, they are likely old enough to explain how they would like to be helped.

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