Do we need to stop giving our kids so many choices?

Kinderling News & Features

"We need to stop giving our kids so many choices."

That sentence stopped me in my tracks.

It’s the title of a blog post by Lauren of Heart of Deborah, the mother of two boisterous toddlers. And she wrote it after her own mum observed (not unkindly) that in offering so many choices throughout the day, she was inadvertently giving too much control to her kids.

After some introspection, Lauren decided her mum was right.

She writes: “I realized I had a hard time making decisions. I also worried that if I made the “wrong” decision my child would have an epic tantrum and I wouldn’t feel like dealing with it … Yet by not dealing with it and trying to actively avoid the tantrum by offering choices, I was unintentionally allowing my child to become the authority figure in our relationship.”

Parenting, huh? It’s not for the faint of heart.

I’ve always been a big fan of the quasi-choice

That is, at certain moments in the day, I’ll offer a choice that has the least long-term impact on the flow of our day. For example: Do you want to a) go to the park with the big swing, or b) go to the bike track with your scooter? 

I also do this at breakfast time by asking what they’d like to eat. Please note: I don’t do this at any other meal, but breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, and I‘m usually more up for getting creative with food in the morning than dreaded dinner time!

I feel like the older my kids get, I want to balance out my expectations of what they can do independently - like chores and tasks - with more choices.

Curious to know if I was on the right track, I asked psychologist Karen Young of Hey Sigmund for her thoughts.

The psychological importance of choice

Karen told Kinderling that essentially, offering our kids incremental choices fosters their independence.  

“I think that one of the important things [giving] choices does, is that it starts to teach them about the importance and power of their own mind. When we give them choices, we’re giving them the opportunity to experiment with their own freedom of thought, as well as the consequences of that. Not all the decisions they make will work out the way they thought, and that’s okay - with every wrong decision, they’re learning how to put things right, or that they’ll be okay even if things aren’t quite right.”

Child psychologist and author, Michelle Karavas talks about helping kids learn to deal with anger on Kinderling Conversation:  

Keep it simple

Choices for children under five can be as simple as letting them decide what to wear in the morning, or whether they’d like to read one story or two at the end of the day.

“Of course, we need to be careful not to overwhelm them. But anything we can do to nurture their own belief in their own mind, their independence of thought, their capacity to take responsibility for making the decisions that affect them - and resilience when their decisions don’t go as planned - will be a good thing,” says Karen.

Opinions matter

“Asking their opinion is also important,” says Karen. “This doesn’t mean we have to do everything they say, but letting them know that their voice matters, and their thoughts matter, is important. It’s also a way to nurture the idea that they don’t have to agree with whatever else is happening around them. Finally, it’s important to treat them as the people we want them to be.”

Teenage years, here we come!  

According to Karen, how we teach our kids about choice when they’re little can have a significant impact on their adolescent years.  

“If we don’t give them enough opportunities to make their own decisions, the risk is that when we aren’t around, such as when they are at school, or when they are adolescents, they will be more likely to defer to peers for important decisions. Sometimes this will be okay, and sometimes this could get messy.”

Who knew that offering a Vegemite versus a peanut butter sandwich could have so much meaning, right?

But of course, at the end of the day, we just need to do what feels right in the moment.