When our kids misbehave or act out, there’s a reason. It can be any number of things. One is purely to get attention and the other common reason is to gain control and power. As human beings we all want to feel we have some control over our lives and if we don’t we’ll find a way to get it. People of all ages have the same basic needs. So how can we give kids control, without them walking all over us?
When I was studying the S.T.E.P. program (Systematic Training To Effective Parenting) in the mid ’80’s I was introduced to the notion of offering children choices. It was new to me as I don’t remember anyone ever offering me a choice when I was growing up and I don’t remember learning about choices when I was studying early childhood education. We did though learn many ways to be firm but gentle with children.
What do I mean by offering a child a choice and why is it so powerful? When they’re very young, say two or three years old we can show them two plastic cups; a blue one and a green one and ask: “Do you want the blue one or the green one?” Or you can say: “Do you want to sit in this chair or that chair?” or “Do you want to wear your green pajamas or your blue pajamas?” It makes them feel they have some power and control and consequently are less likely to gain it in inappropriate ways. It also tells them their likes and dislikes matter to you. As well, children who are given choices learn to start thinking for themselves. They become less reliant on other people to make decisions for them.
As children get older we can start offering them more than two choices, keeping in mind that all the options you’re presenting must be acceptable to you. You can say: “Here are some choices for lunch; vegetable soup, peanut butter sandwich or grilled cheese sandwich.” Or you might say, “Do you want to play a game tonight? We could play this, or this, or this. Choose one.” If you’re having a difficult time getting your child to do something, you can say: “I need you to clear your plate away. Do you want to put it on the counter or in the dishwasher?”
As children approach their middle and teen years you can continue to use choices. You can say: “I’d like your homework done before 8pm. Do you want to do it at the kitchen table or in your room?” Or you might say: “I need some help in the kitchen. Would you like to empty the dishwasher, sweep the floor or fill the dishwasher?” Offering a choice significantly reduces arguments around tasks that need to be done around the house.
One of the problems parents might encounter with choices is that their kids don’t want either or any of the choices you’re offering. If that’s the case, the next choice becomes: “Do you want to choose or would you like me to choose?” The majority of the time, kids will make a choice and that will be the end of it.
Using this simple tool you’ll find you can eliminate many power struggles and arguments. Children are as human as the rest of us and need to feel they have some control over their lives. We want to give it to them in appropriate ways so they don’t try and gain it in inappropriate ways.