Tanja Hrvatin Simičić: Giving Children a Choice

Every person has needs. Basic human needs. Children have them just as much. Some of them are the need for significance, the feeling of “I can”, “I have value” and “I can decide about my life”.

When someone persistently tells us what to do, how do we respond? We resist it, right? We set a boundary to that person or move away (depending on how important and close that person is to us). With children, it is no different.

Parents call the period in a child’s social development around the age of two years “the impossible year”, or “terrible twos”. This is actually the time when children begin to form the “I”, which means “I am an individual for myself” and “I can decide about my life”. And that’s where the problems arise. Everyday life becomes much more you struggling with your child to do what he or she should do than togetherness and connection. It’s as if they are deliberately doing the opposite of what we ask. Sound familiar? Wonder why this is so?

In the parent-child relationship, children are most often passive recipients, with the parents expecting the child to behave in a certain way. The parent gives instructions and expects the child to act in accordance with them. When a child gets instructions (and, believe me, they get them all the time, more often than we think: now eat, now wash your hands, now go to sleep, now change, now go to kindergarten…), it very often resists obeying them. This is because the child also wants to make some decisions. That way the child feels “alive”, valued and capable.

How then can we get the child to do what we want, but let it decide, too?

Instead of giving orders, we need to give children a choice and wait for the magic to happen.

So when we want a child to wear pajamas, instead of saying “Put on your pajamas”, we can say “Which pajamas do you want to wear? These ones or these ones?”, and end the question as often as possible with “You choose!”. In this way we give the child power. And everyone wants to feel that they have power, that they get to decide. It makes us feel respected, capable and valuable. In this way, tantrums and resistance in children can be prevented precisely because we have met their basic needs. So, in the short term, giving choices makes it easier to get what we want, and in the long run, we satisfy our child’s need to belong, to be part of a team and to be able to decide (and these are the underlying needs behind their behavior). By doing so we also create beliefs that will serve the child throughout their life – beliefs like “I am worthy”, “I have a say”, “I can decide”, “I feel seen” and so on. These beliefs are the basis that guides us through life, i.e. affect our outlook on life.

Whenever we feel that we are losing connection in our daily routines (and we have lost it when the child “does not listen” to us and we become upset), we need to remember how important it is to give the child a choice.

Here are some examples:

We’re going to kindergarten; do you want to call the elevator / open the door or do you want me to do it?

We’re going out! Which toy will you take with you, this one or that one?

It’s bedtime, what good night story do you want us to read? This one or that one?

What animal are you going to bathe today while taking a shower?

Do you want oatmeal for breakfast or bread and hummus, you choose?

When giving choices it is very important to limit the choices because children do not feel safe when they have too many choices. Limits are very important to them so we need to offer just a few things, ideally two. If we ask “What do you want for breakfast?”, you open the door to emotional outbursts. Children need a framework within which they can “behave”; this gives them security.

When we give children choices, they feel they have control over their lives and are part of a team, instead of us being their “bosses” who give out orders and set expectations and they the underlings who have to obey and fulfill them. The more authoritative we are the more our children will resist. We need to act in a way that meets their basic needs. Then we will get much more “obedience”, which is what parents usually strive for. Although, the goal is not to raise children who obey without question but for us to build a good relationship with them, and it means adequate development of the child. Children raised in such a relationship exhibit fewer demanding behaviors.

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