Finding a Balance in Offering Children Choices

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I am a firm believer in the steps of positive discipline as a framework for effectively managing most discipline exchanges. An active step is offering your child choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. If you want them to put on a coat you might offer, “the red or the blue.” If you want them to start homework you might offer, “start with reading or math,” or, “work at the kitchen table or your bedroom desk.” The goal is to gain the behavior by offering your child decision making power. The child buys into the behavior by making a choice.

Choices offer a more flexible step than consequences, and should be used in rotation with challenges and contribution first for most behaviors. It’s also good practice to offer choices occasionally outside of discipline moments. It’s nice to give even young children choices about what to eat for breakfast, what to wear or how to spend their time on a Saturday afternoon. Here’s a full post on the use of choices in discipline.

I’ve met parents who fall at either far end of the continuum on their use of choices. There are parents who feel children shouldn’t be given choices. That all things go easier when children are told what to do, and discipline provides the follow up. That offering choices gives too much power and creates a struggle where there wasn’t one previously. There are also parents who give their children too many choices, choices for everything all day. When these parents offer a choice and the child says, “no,” the parent may offer another choice and then another until the child agrees. There is a good balance between these two extremes. Choices tend to gain compliance, too many choices and behavior runs amok.

Choices too often – When children have choices for absolutely everything, it may be a struggle for them when choices aren’t available. The idea is to use choices, challenges or contribution before consequence language for most discipline exchanges. It’s also great to give choices at other times during the day. It becomes too much when the child is frustrated if there aren’t choices available. The goal is for children to be flexible to this and equally follow requests or directions when there aren’t choices available.

Too many choices – Giving a three-year-old a choice of eight things is likely overwhelming and can lead to frustration. The idea is to start with a choice of two and go wider as they ask for a third choice.

Giving choice, after choice because the child doesn’t like the options – You offer a choice of two things and the child says, “no,” so you offer a choice of two other things and then another. This can quickly become a pattern that repeats often and adds frustration to the system. The answer is to stick with the first offered choices and help children to choose.

If you end up choosing – If the child doesn’t choose, you can choose for them, but you have to let them know that’s coming. You might say, “this is taking too long, you can choose, or I will choose for you.” If you then end up choosing, it is good to stick with the choice you made. Sticking with it encourages children to choose when you say, “you can choose, or I will choose for you,” moving forward.

Continually changing their choices – Let’s say you offer the choice of a red or blue coat, and the child chooses red. The coat is on, you are leaving the house, and the child yells for blue. Once the follow through has happened, as best you can, it is good to stick with the first choice. This helps children to choose well the first time, rather than going back and forth as a game.

Choices are meant to make a discipline exchange easier. If choices are adding to the difficulty, it’s good to step back and think about how the choices are off track. I am happy to answer questions about this or any other discipline questions in the comments below.

 

 

 

6 Ways to Ask Dr. Rene Your Parenting Questions

Help and support concept

There are lots of ways to connect with me and have your parenting questions answered.

  • Submit parenting questions to this blog – You are welcome to email your parenting questions to blog@parentingplaygroups.com. I often answer parents’ questions and posts them to http://www.parentingbydrrene.com.
  • Ask shorter questions on facebook – You can join a parenting chat on facebook every Tuesday from 10:00 – 11:00pm at Parenting by Dr. Rene.
  • Join me for a twitter chat – I’m still figuring out these logistics and summoning the courage to just schedule one. On twitter visit @ParentingDrRene.
  • Join our Online Membership for online Q&As –  You can join my online membership which gets you access to many hours of my popular parenting workshops. These audio classes cover the whole discipline series, potty training, sibling rivalry, managing mealtimes and more. When you are an online member, you can also participate in my Q&A sessions. Of course you can listen live but you can also listen on your schedule. It’s as easy as posting your questions in advance of the meeting time and then listening to them in the recorded library. Online membership is available at  http://parentingplaygroups.com/MemberResources/index.php/welcome/.
  • Attend a workshop – I offer local workshops on a wide range of topics. For topics, locations and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/o/parenting-by-dr-rene-parenting-playgroups-283710166?s=1328924.
  • Schedule an individual consultation – I meet with individual families often. Consultation works best if you send a detailed email including any related history, typical examples, teachers’ and others’ relevant comments and all of your questions and concerns. This ensures I am a good fit and allows everyone to focus on problem solving rather than collecting information during the meeting time. Occasionally this includes observation time at home or in your child’s classroom. If you would like to schedule a consultation time, please email drrene@parentingplaygroups.com directly.

When a Child Prefers One Parent

Question:

Dear Dr. Rene,

I have a two years and eight months old girl. I nursed her for 18 months. After that point, I slowly have faded into the background. If daddy is around, I am out. I can’t give her a bath and put her to bed without dealing with tantrums about why daddy isn’t doing it. She regularly pronounces her love for daddy. Sometimes, she goes out of her way to say that she does not love mommy. I try to be cheerful in spite of this, but it is really, really hard. I feel like the third wheel in my own family. She also refuses to be comforted by me if he is around; sometimes even if he is not. My husband tries to make room for me, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. He says it is “just a phase,” but, for the most part, it has been like this for almost a year.

Answer:

It is normal for a child to go through phases of preferring one parent over the other. I have heard from many parents in this position, including my husband, that it feels really bad.

My older daughter was always equally happy if it was me or her dad giving her a bath or reading to her. My younger daughter took about three years to warm up to the idea of her dad participating. In the first year, she strongly preferred that I hold her. By two years old, she only wanted me to read to her and tuck her in. On nights when it was his turn, she complained and cried. While I know it hurt his feelings, he always seemed to take it in stride occasionally saying things like, “I’ll just keep loving her and eventually she’ll come around.” She did. By the time she was about three years old, he was among her best playmates.

In the moment, the first answer is to not react in a big way. If you over react and get upset or angry, the situation often escalates to a power struggle. Raise your voice and you may spark a tantrum. If you under react and give in to it being the preferred parent’s turn, you give your child’s push power. Your child is more likely to push for the other parent the next go around because it worked.

The second answer is to give your child empathy, validate their feelings and let them know you understand. My husband would say something like, “I know you’re sad, you love when mommy reads to you, she’s great at it.” This dampens their need to argue.

And third, move forward through the process. As you can, continue to read the story, tuck-in and give love. This means my husband would finish the bedtime routine through her upset. If I took over or if he gave up, it encourages the push to be bigger the next go around.

If bath or bedtime are particularly difficult, it may be helpful for the preferred parent to “be away” during that particular time for several days in a row, and the non-preferred parent should strive to make the time enjoyable. If it’s bath, bring extra toys, make it a bubble bath, give extra playtime. If it’s bedtime, read and snuggle a bit longer each night. When the preferred parent re-enters the schedule, continue to alternate nights often and work through the difficult times.

It may also be helpful for each parent to spend some fun alone time with each child in the house every month. This is being sure that individual pairs in the family get regular time to connect individually.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Successful Grocery Shopping with Children

Grocery shopping with children can be quite a task. It takes a while to get through the store, there are lots of temptations and distractions at their level and most times, not a lot of fun. There are several ways to increase the likelihood of a successful shopping trip.

The first line of defense is getting organized. Shop at the same store each time and build your list around the store layout. You might bring a snack along for your child or open a box of cereal or crackers that you plan to buy. An available snack might curb repeatedly asking for other foods.

The second is to have a way to contain them as needed. Of course this is for the little ones and includes a baby seat, a seat belt, space in the big cart or a drivers seat in the car carts.

The third way is to engage your children. Give them jobs and include them in the shopping process. Here is a list of several ways they can help by age:

One and Two Year Olds

  • Okay, this age is probably too young to really be helpful, but for sure the grocery store provides a wealth of conversation starters and chances to encourage early speech. You can label the fruits and vegetables, discuss colors, and talk about cold vs. hot in various areas.

Three and Four Years Olds

  • Children this age can start to make choices about which cereal or ice cream to pick.  At this little age, it’s best to give them a choice of two per decision.
  • They can count (with you and then independently) the number of apples into the bag or soup cans into the cart.
  • They can find rhymes such as a fruit that rhymes with “bapples.”
  • They can find flavors of yogurt based on the pictures.

Five, Six and Seven Year Olds

  • As they are learning to read and write, children may be excited to help write, find and cross off the items on the list.
  • They can weigh fruits and vegetables.
  • They can help load and unload the cart.
  • They can play Eye Spy to find foods on the list. You might describe, “I spy a fruit that is round and crispy, red, shiny and has a stem,” for apples or, “I spy a blue box with a happy tiger on the front,” for Frosted Flakes.

Eight, Nine and Ten Year Olds

  • As they are a bit older, children might be interested in learning about nutrition labels.
  • As math skills increase, they may be able to calculate the cost of fruits and vegetables by weight.
  • They can manage the hand-held scanner if it’s available.
  • They can push the cart.
  • They can manage the coupons.

Older Kids

  • To practice additional math skills, children can learn to comparison shop by comparing price per weight of different sizes. They can keep a tally of the total and calculate coupons and taxes.
  • As you are comfortable, they can find items scattered across the store and bring them one at a time to the cart, OR take half the list and a second cart and meet you in the middle.
  • Older kids might bring recipes they’d like to make and shop for them along side you.

At any age, give descriptive praise when they are successful. Say things like, “you got the apples in the bag, that was helpful!” or, “thanks for pushing the cart.” Please add your own ideas for getting through the grocery store below!

The “No” Phase

Dear Dr. Rene,

My daughter -who is three years old- has displayed a strong character since her first months. Now we are in the ‘no’ phase, anything whatsoever gets the ‘no’ response even if a few minutes later she decides to do/say what I’ve asked of her. How do I get her to become more cooperative, without threatening the independence of her character?

Sincerely, Jessica

Dear Jessica,

Believe it or not, this is a typical and healthy phase. Two and young three year olds often go through a phase of saying “no” all day long. I remember Claire saying “no” to ice cream because I picked the flavor, and a minute later she reached happily for the bowl. Often around this time they are also driven to do the opposite, you say “up” so they say “down,” and often test your commitment to it being up. The “no” and the push for the opposite are a part of her developing a sense of self. She is realizing self is separate from others, that she can form and share her own opinion, and that there is a bit of power in testing limits. This is also a good thing, I want children to find their voice and learn to speak their opinion.

Only ask yes/no questions if “no” is an acceptable response. Avoid saying, “are you ready for dinner?” when you really mean, “it is dinnertime, come to the table now please.” If you ask a yes/no question, be ready to live with either answer. If “no” is unacceptable, rephrase your question.

If “no” is an acceptable answer, let her know this. If you ask, “would you like to sit here?” and she says “no.” I would say “okay, where would you like to sit.” If “no” is unacceptable, you might rephrase this as a choice, “would you like to sit here or here for lunch,” or you might offer a contribution, “I need someone to put a napkin on each plate,” as you hand them or offer a challenge, “let’s race to the table,” or just a distraction, “I am an elephant stomping to the table, are you a big elephant too?” Sounds silly, I know but remember you are talking to a three-year-old.

Let’s take a harder one, say you are making a request but not asking. You say, “it’s time to clean up now, come help me,” and you get a, “no.” I would start by hearing her, “I know you don’t want to right now, it’s time to clean.” or, “you really are having fun playing, it’s hard to put it away and it’s time.” Then you might offer a choice, a challenge or a contribution.

There is also great benefit in not repeating yourself when you ask her to do something.  Here is a link to our blog post on not repeating yourself: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/want-kids-to-listen-stop-repeating-yourself/

Here is a link to our blog post on choices: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/how-choices-work-in-positive-discipline/

And a link to our blog post on contribution: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/contribution-getting-kids-to-help/

Helping Siblings Get Along

Here are a few general tips to benefit sibling relationships:

  • Fair is not equal, fair is everyone has their needs met – It’s okay that the discipline for a three-year-old is different than the discipline for a seven-year-old for the same behaviors. They are different children at different stages of development, meeting their needs may happen in very different ways.
  • Avoid comparisons – This can be as mild as, “this is our big boy, and this is our baby,” or as direct as, “this is our student, and this is our athlete.” These labels and comparisons can put a lot of pressure on children and define our expectations which can be limiting.
  • Beyond three years old think of yourself more as coach than referee in helping them get along – When the youngest involved is under three years old, you are still often a referee. As they get older, avoid solving for them. Rather focus on teaching them new and better skills to problem solve themselves. Focus your efforts on helping them listen to each other, take turns and share, negotiate and problem solve together. This can take a great deal of time and creativity, but in the long run moves them towards being able to solve without you.
  • Give them lots of opportunities – Siblings need opportunities to play and work together. This might be shared challenges like cleaning up together to beat the clock, cooking together, having sleep overs or building forts together.

To learn more about each of these ideas and much more about sibling relationships, join my Birth Order and Sibling Rivalry workshop this Sunday April 14 from 7:00-9:00 p.m.  For more information and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/org/283710166?s=1328924.

Can’t make it to the workshop? There is a great parenting book titled Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.

Bloom Where You Are Planted

I’ve found another family mantra, bloom where you are planted. We’ve been discussing this one with our girls all week. We’ve touched on this over the years, but this week it hit home when we went on vacation with a few other families. This vacation included a day at a low-key amusement park, a dinner show, lots of shopping and late night time at the open-24-hours hotel pool. I get “low-key” and “amusement park” are incongruent, but it is a park with swings and wooden coasters as opposed to the crazy big coasters even my kids prefer. My kids made the best of it, they rode every ride that looked remotely fun. The other kids deemed the rides “for babies” and sat out most of them just watching. While in line for a roller coaster, they complained to their mom that she “wasted her money,” and that “this place is lame.”

The much anticipated day at the amusement park was also an unseasonably cold 45 degree day with light rain starting by lunchtime. Early in the morning my girls and I decided to make the best of it, enjoy what we could. The other families bailed by 2:00 p.m. The girls and I stayed, we rode rides in the rain til 7:00 p.m. My 15 year old commented, “Yeah, it’s raining, but we are here, and this is fun.” The dinner show unfolded in a similar fashion. My girls singing and participating with the adults, the other children rolling their eyes. My girls enjoyed the pool, just the two of them.

There are several ways to teach this attitude:

  • Model it – My husband’s example was about a day we spent with my high school friends at a community garden in Richmond. He says he couldn’t think of a more dull way to spend the day, but decided to make the most of it and went for nature walks and played tag with our girls.
  • Highlight it – When your children keep an upbeat attitude, let them know you noticed.
  • Focus on solutions not problems – When it started to drizzle, my daughter said, “If it rains harder, we could stop and see a show or have lunch.”
  • Live in the moment as it is, rather than focusing on what it isn’t – One of the other children commented, “my friend Beth went somewhere good for vacation.” She couldn’t be grateful for where she was when she focused on where she wasn’t.
  • Practice gratitude – The more children practice gratitude, the more they feel it. We were blessed to have time away together as a family, that alone is reason to be grateful.
  • Smile more – It’s easy and can help improve your mood and your outlook.

I hope my girls keep this attitude as they grow. I want them to fully enjoy and make the most of wherever they are.

For our other family mantras, please visit: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/mantras-in-our-family/.

Please share your family mantras here!

Ways to Teach Children Emotion Language

Emotion language provides children a tool for managing social exchange. By the time they get to Kindergarten, I want children to be able to look at their friend and say, “I am mad at you. You took my block,” rather than clobber them. There are many ways to teach children emotion language, here are a few:

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way by putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, and people are running). This AVOIDS blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide following an emotional exchange, once all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions.  There is a list on my blog at: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. When Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and catie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into six squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way.  You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs –  We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.

For more ideas you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine. You can also attend or listen online to our workshop on emotional development and emotion coaching.

Say “Yes” Whenever You Can

As parents we tend to say “no” often. I think many of us say “no” to the things our children ask of us without even stopping to think. “No” is just the first thing or the easy thing to say. As a preschool teacher, I’ve learned to make “yes” my default answer. I stop and think before answering and say “yes” as often as I can. When children need more glue for their project, even if I think they have enough, the answer is “yes.” If they want to leave their block tower standing rather than clean up and the space is available, the answer is “yes.” Life is more fun and children are happier.

I remember eating lunch with Claire when she was three years old. She had her hot pizza in one hand and a spoon of cold yogurt in her other. She said, “can I put my yogurt on my pizza?” My first thought was “no, gross,” but instead I asked, “are you going to eat it?” She answered an enthusiastic, “yes!” So I said, “okay.” She spread yogurt all over her pizza and then ate the whole thing. She was happy and it was one less “no” we all had to deal with. Had she spread yogurt on her pizza, and then not eaten it, but asked again the next day, that answer would be a “no.” In this case the “yes” worked, and she enjoyed spreading yogurt on almost everything else she ate that month.

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

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