Getting Choices to Work

The Next Family

Note from the editor: It is important to us that TNF expose you to both sides of the coin on parenting issues. Your child may not fit the personality described by one writer but s/he may very well be like another. Each week in this Q & A segment we will juxtapose two parenting philosophies –one as proposed by Julie & Holly (more of an unconditional parenting style), and the other by Joe Newman, who provides a more transactional parenting approach.


I’m trying to be a good parent by giving choices to my daughter (age 4), but it’s not working at all and I’m at my wit’s end. What should I do when she refuses to go along with the “giving choices” plan?


Answer by Julie Gamberg & Holly Kretschmar (Parents and Educators)

Giving a choice can be an effective tool if it’s done respectfully and gives control to a child who wants to feel powerful. During transitions, such as when you’re headed out the door, leaving the playground, or getting ready for bed, offering a choice to a child can help to diffuse tension by focusing your child’s attention and giving her control over a situation. The key is to communicate the options calmly and kindly, and to remember that offering a choice is not a strategy by itself, but one tool in a toolbox that includes empathy, problem-solving, and maintaining healthy limits.

Below are some tips on using choices:

*Only offer options that you’re comfortable with, such as, “We need to leave the house. Would you like to walk or go in your push car?” If bare feet aren’t an option, don’t ask, “Would you like to wear your sandals or no shoes?”

*Communicate respectfully and allow her to exercise her skills: “We had a fun time playing, but now it’s time to clean up. Which should we do first – pick up the yellow blocks or the green blocks?”

*Describe the choice in terms your child can understand. Use simple language and concepts. Don’t say “Would you like to go up to bed now, or in 5 minutes?” if your child isn’t familiar with a sense of time. You could try: “We need to go to bed soon. Before we go upstairs, would you like to read a story or play ‘put your elephant to sleep’?”

*If necessary, present the less-preferred reality and then offer a choice that makes the request more desirable. For example, “I know you want to stay up and play – you’re having so much fun and it’s hard to stop. But it’s time for bed, so we’re going upstairs now. Would you like to have a piggy back ride or be carried like a sack of potatoes?”

*Avoid framing choices such that your child is punishing herself, such as, “You can choose to finish your dinner now or go to bed right now.”

*Before key transitions, give your daughter plenty of warning. Before leaving the playground, for example, give her warnings at five, three, and one minutes before leaving (if appropriate).  Then, let her know it’s time to go but give her a choice that engages her imagination: “While we’re walking to the car, should we walk like penguins or hippos?”

*Transparency can be a powerful parenting tool; engage your daughter in designing the choice. “It’s so hard to leave. What can we do to make walking to the car more fun?”

*Engage her with empathy: “You love playing with that ukulele! It’s really hard to stop playing. But we have to get ready now. Do you want to put your shoes on by yourself, or would you like me to help you?”

*Be patient. If your child initially balks at the choice, repeat her options calmly.

Giving choices isn’t a panacea, and may not work if your daughter is, say, exhausted and over-stimulated and her core needs aren’t met. Don’t force your child to choose something she doesn’t want to do. You can always say, “Wow, we’re in a tough situation. I’m going to help you put on your shoes and I know that’s not your choice and you’re upset. You want to stay and play. We’ll make sure to find some time to play when we get home. Now we’re going to do shoes.” And then gently and lovingly put on the shoes.

Let us know how it goes.

Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

It may be you’ve created a monster by giving your daughter too many open-ended choices (or too many choices at all), and even the impression that she’s entitled to choices. It is also possible that your daughter is challenging the choices you offer in order to see what she can get when she fully asserts her power.

The simplest way to stop this behavior is to make her grateful that she is given any choice at all. The next time you offer her a choice and she refuses to take one, tell her, “In 10 seconds if you haven’t made a choice I’ll make the choice for you…10, 9, 8, 7…” Then make sure you follow through and don’t relent about her having any other option than the one you’ve chosen. She will likely throw a fit and you’ll need to make sure that nothing fun or interesting happens until she has complied with the choice you needed to make for her.

When you’re talking to her about the single option she is now left with, point out that this is a result of her decision, not yours. “I gave you an opportunity to choose and you decided not to choose, so you made the decision to let me choose. Next time you can make a different decision and choose the one you prefer.” If you do this a few times she will quickly realize that choices can quickly disappear if she refuses to cooperate.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s important that you start to have regular times throughout the day when there are no choices at all and times when choices are very limited. There should be consequences for refusing to go along with the rules you set or the choices you offer.

In many cases the choices you offer aren’t really choices so much as ways to clearly communicate to your child what each of you has control and autonomy over. For instance, your child wants to play in the yard with her friend after they’ve come home from another’s birthday party. You’re happy to let her do this, but she’s still wearing her favorite outfit and you need her to change first.

You say to her, “You can play in the yard, but only after you’ve changed out of your dress.”

Your daughter loves wearing the dress and insists she be able to wear it to play in the yard, “No, I want to wear my dress! I’m not taking it off! I’m wearing it!”

You point out what you control and what she controls, “You don’t have to take off the dress if you don’t want to.” (What she controls) “But if you want to go outside, you need to change out of the dress.” (You control the rules) “So you can choose to change and go outside or wear the dress and play inside.” (She controls her choices).

Choices and limits aren’t important simply because other options can’t be accommodated; rather, children need to experience the frustration of not getting what they want and yielding to the needs of others because these experiences are essential to psychological development.

There is a natural tendency to feel like the more we can give our children, and the easier and more comfortable we can make things for them, the better. Parents who have the luxury of giving their children most of what they want and asking for little in return believe doing this is doing the best thing for their child. But children who are raised this way end up becoming children with very little experience using the psychological muscles of deferred gratification, emotional regulation, and self-discipline. There is a myth that children develop these essential character skills through being talked to and reasoned with – they don’t! They learn them through being required to use them, by exercising and building them.

Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at

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