“Jackson, would you like to wear your rain boots or your sneakers?” “Annika, do you want green beans or sweet potatoes?” “Charlie, would you prefer to share the ball or play with the blocks by yourself?”
Once upon a time, authoritarian parenting was the standard. You might remember the style: Mom and dad make the rules. Children are expected to obediently follow. But today, gaining cooperation from children—rather than demanding it—is the new parenting norm, and educational and parenting experts alike recommend empowering children make their own choices about, well, a whole lot of things.
Does offering all these choices really work? And what do choices do for our kids, anyway?
To find out, we talked with two KinderCare early childhood education experts who know the power of choices firsthand. Together, Senior Advisor of Quality and Accreditation Lorri Fabry and Assistant Director at a Chicago-area KinderCare Laurin Atkinson have nearly 40 years of education experience between them—but their history goes deeper than that. Fabry and Atkinson also happen to be mother and daughter.
“From the minute they wake up in the morning, kids are making lots of choices and navigating the world, just like adults,” Fabry says. “We know good decision-making is a skill that we can help them learn. It’s really important for us to take the time to teach them.” Here’s why choices are so important for kids—and how to make this parenting strategy work for you at home:
1. Choices can quell power struggles.
Start by offering your child choices in areas that might be important to her, but not to you: Shall we have cereal or purple yogurt for breakfast? Simple choices like these let children feel more powerful and in control, and that’s a good thing: “When you allow her to make choices over smaller things like breakfast, children feel as though decision-making is a partnership, and you will likely get more cooperation in other areas,” says Atkinson. In other words, by empowering her to choose what she eats, you may not have a power struggle when it’s really time to buckle up her shoes and head out the door.
2. Choices teach children to make good decisions.
“Why are some people leaders?” Fabry asks. “Someone spent time with them and developed these decision-making skills.” When you explain your reasoning and include your child in your decision-making process, he’s learning the why behind the rules. This helps him develop the critical thinking skills he’ll need to make his own smart, well-reasoned choices in the future. Instead of: Get your coat on. Try: We’re putting your snowsuit on because it’s really cold outside. When we go down the stairs, you can walk or crawl like a bear.
3. Explaining your choice helps him learn to make his own.
You’re still the parent. “Giving up some control does not equal chaos,” emphasizes Atkinson. Many decisions—especially about health and safety—are too big for young children, so you will of course make these choices for them. When your child must do something, Atkinson suggests offering him the choice of how he does it. For example: I want you to eat your vegetables because broccoli makes you strong and healthy. You, my little friend, get to choose how to eat it! You could try your fork or your fingers.
4. Choices don’t solve everything.
Your child may be tired, overwhelmed, or perhaps this particular choice isn’t very important to her. It looks like Jemima is playing with that doll already, would you like to play with the teddy bear until she’s finished with her turn? Or share your ball and play together? If your little darling simply says, “NO! NO! NO!” then these three approaches may help you arrive at a decision together. 1) Give her a minute, and wait to see if she decides on her own. 2) Help her choose: You had a really fun time kicking the ball together last weekend, should we ask Jemima is she wants to play again? 3) Or simply choose for her: I’m going to find the teddy bear. Let’s get a tea party set up for him!
5. Making choices takes practice.
Every child is different and develops in his own time, but for all children, learning to make good decisions takes repetition and plenty of practice. Start slowly, and help them to explore their choices gradually. A younger child will be able to choose between two or three things: On a blustery day, you might offer a toddler a choice between his orange sweater and his blue sweatshirt. By age five, when it’s cold outside you can ask him to choose a warm outfit from his closet all by himself, because he’s developed reasoning skills, confidence, and been given lots of chances to practice.