When a Choice is Not a Choice

When children are encouraged to make choices, it can help them feel empowered – that they have some control over their lives. However, are all choices really choices? Do we, as parents, grasp for the ‘choice’ parenting tool because it is quicker and easier than the alternatives, and because we feel better about offering our child options, rather than imposing discipline? Is giving a child a ‘choice’ the same as giving them a ‘say’ in their lives?

Choice is important

As Alfie Kohn states, in his book “Unconditional Parenting”, letting children make choices helps them learn decision-making skills and develop autonomy. When parents and children are in that area in their relationship where they are just ‘being’ – learning, laughing, loving – choices help children grow. When children are included in finding solutions to disagreements – when they have the opportunity to suggest, agree or disagree with options during a conflict – the relationship with their parent is enhanced.

When choice may not be choice

This article focuses on those times when we offer our child a choice as a means to end a conflict. A conflict or disagreement happens when we ask our children to do something (eat vegetables; get in the car seat; leave the house on time; have a bath; do their homework; practice piano) and our child says, “No!” Because our child has resisted our request (and generally, we don’t know why they are saying “no”), both parent and child are unhappy. Trapped, we might continue with our familiar pattern – we ask again, and again – then give a choice. This ‘choice’, however, is really our solution to our problem – and often doesn’t take into account any difficulties for the child.

When choice doesn’t work

Active-Listening-with-childrenSometimes, the choices we give our children are really a “pseudo-choice” (used as an alternative to punishment or discipline), resulting in frustration for both parent and child. There are times when we, as parents, can grab the ‘choice’ tool because it’s quick and easy, and not because it’s the best tool for the situation.

Here’s an example:

Early one morning, Mum was struggling to maintain her demeanour and temper as she tried to get her daughter, age 2 years and 11 months, dressed. She gave her daughter a pair of underpants to put on, but her daughter threw them away.

“I don’t want these!”

Mum gave her a second, then a third, pair of underpants, both of which got the same treatment – tossed away angrily onto the ground. By this time, Mum was becoming very frustrated and annoyed. She decided to give her daughter a choice (as many of her parenting books suggested).

“Lily, you have a choice – you can wear either this pair or this pair. Which pair of underpants do you want? You have to wear underpants”.

“NONE – I choose NONE!” shouted Lily, and she proceeded to cry and cry.

Mum realised that Lily was really bothered by the thought of wearing underpants – that Lily ‘owned the problem’. Taking a big breath, she decided to go back to basics, and to Active Listen to Lily.

“You find underpants uncomfortable”.

“Yes, they are uncomfortable”. Lily was holding back the tears.

“They are annoying to wear. You don’t want to wear underpants”, said Mum. Lily nodded.

“I just want to wear jeans!”

Mum said, “I’m concerned that your jeans would be really uncomfortable if you don’t wear underpants with them. That is why I would want you to wear underpants”. Lily was struggling not to burst in to tears.

“But my pants make wedgies!!” she choked out. (‘wedgies’ happen when pants are too small). Suddenly, Mum understood.

“You’re worried about your underpants making wedgies and being uncomfortable”. In a stronger voice, Lily nodded and said, “I’m worried about wedgies”.

Mum got up from the bed, went to the drawer and pulled out the underpants that she now knew were too small.

“These small ones are the ones that make wedgies the most. I’ll throw them away (and she threw them away as Lily watched). These other ones are bigger, and cover your bottom, and won’t cause so many wedgies”.

Lily looked at her Mum, smiled, and said, “I’ll wear these ones, the stripy ones” (which were bigger). Both mother and child were happy.

Why choice may not work

Here are some reasons why choice may not work:

1. Not listening for the underlying need – when the problem is not the problem! Usually, we give choices when there is a conflict between our child and us. In order to resolve conflict, it is essential to understand the underlying need of our child that led to the behaviour that annoyed us. I believe that often, giving choices is like putting a band-aid on a splinter. We haven’t got down to the sliver of wood that caused the wound. In this case, Lily was worried about putting on uncomfortable pants. Mum tried to solve a problem before understanding the real problem for her child!

2. Parent control. We often give ‘choices’ when we’ve already decided the outcome. We are using our position as parents with power, to control a situation that involves someone else – our child. There isn’t a choice of outcome for the child. The choice is about the route the child is allowed to take to achieve a pre-determined solution. In this case, Mum had decided that Lily ‘needed’ to wear underpants in order to be comfortable. And her ‘route’ to comfort was for Lily to choose her pants.

Often, we give children choices to make achieving the end goal easier – for us! Really, the choices are an illusion. And our children are smart enough to see through the illusion to the reality.

3. Not involving the child in generating solutions. Choices are final! When we say to our child “you can choose this or this” we are closing down options. We are not allowing our children to come up with other solutions that may work better – for us, and our child.

Situations where there is only one outcome

Sometimes, children have to deal with issues where there seems to be no immediate realistic or feasible option – for them or their parent. These may include: going to the dentist; going to childcare or school; brushing their teeth. In circumstances such as these, we could help our children find a way to live with something over which they have no control. Through careful listening and communication, we can help them find within themselves the courage (and solutions) to do the things they really don’t want to do, but may be best for them in the long term. This is resilience. For example, your child may agree to go to childcare if they can take your jumper with them, to hug and smell throughout the day.

Some Solutions

When you’re about to give some choices when in a conflict with your child; or the choices you’ve given are resulting in an escalation of the argument, rather than resolution, consider these thoughts:

  1. Be aware that you are in a conflict with your child.
  2. Listen for the reason behind your child’s behaviour. Use a lot of Active Listening! (a skill popularized by P.E.T. parenting classes from Dr. Thomas Gordon).
  3. Use I-Messages to help your child understand your need (so they don’t feel blamed or put down).
  4. Remember to Active Listen again when they say ‘no’.
  5. Put into practice your conflict resolution skills:
    1. Understand why you want your child to do something (using I-Messages).
    2. Understand why they don’t want to do what you want (using Active Listening).
    3. Ask your child for some ideas on how you can both be OK.
    4. You give some ideas – not as choices (which are final), but options to be considered, along with their own ideas.
    5. Both of you agree on an option.
    6. Let your child know that if this doesn’t work, you can both talk about it later, and try to come up with a new solution.
  6. If you feel you have no option but to give a choice (time doesn’t allow for all of the above), and this results in a very unhappy child, then look to repair the relationship. At another time, discuss what happened. Apologise. Try to work out how to handle future situations together.

Remember – be kind to both yourself, and your child. You are reading this blog because you care about being a parent; you have been giving choices because you care about your child. In the end, the real goal is to make and maintain a close and loving relationship with your child.

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