The Power Of Choice

Imagine a day in which you had no say in what you did. Someone else decided when you got out of bed, what clothes you would wear, and what you ate for breakfast. Someone else dictated when you played, what you played with, and for how long. Someone else chose where you went that day, when you had your meals, and when you slept. Someone else instructed you on how to behave, what things you could and could not touch, and what you watched on TV.

P1210167Now imagine how you’d feel at the end of such a day. After being bossed around and having all your decisions made for you, wouldn’t you want to flex your muscles and have a say?

At my children’s preschool, we talk a lot about how important it is to allow children to make choices. It’s important for many reasons. First of all, a child can’t learn how to make decisions on their own if they’ve never been allowed to do it before. Secondly, presenting children with choices and encouraging them to weigh their options is a powerful tool when it comes to self discipline, self esteem, and restraint, all of which are valuable lessons when it comes to such issues as drugs, alcohol and sex. In other words, letting your toddler choose her own clothes can help equip her to make the right choices when peer pressure kicks in years later.

In my own household, offering choices has not only helped keep the peace, but it has also helped me to feel less like an autocrat, constantly barking orders and being negative. Some rules are not open to interpretation, but I’ve found that my children are more likely to cooperate if they feel they have some say in the process. It’s much more pleasant to say, “It’s time to put your shoes on, would you like to wear the pink pair or the blue pair?” instead of, “We’re leaving. Put your shoes on.”

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about my daughter’s comfort object, her pacifier, and asked for suggestions on gently weaning her from it. In the end, I decided I didn’t want to take it away from her before she had her eye surgery and my instinct was right. The recovery from anesthesia was rough and having the pacifier available helped immensely.

As she approached three years old, we started to suggest that she not only stop using the pacifier, but that it was also time to start thinking about using the toilet. She was very resistant. She’s an independent child and likes things to be on her terms. Having seen friends try to force toilet learning and ending up frustrated, angry or desperate, I took my cues from my child and backed off. Instead, we gave her a deadline and told her that she didn’t need to use the potty if she didn’t want to, but when she turned three, the diapers needed to go. She was so accepting of the idea, we started adding on other items we wanted to be rid of, the pacifier and the sippy cup.

Knowing that she didn’t have to do all those things NOW seemed to go over really well with her, and having a deadline gave her some time to get used to the idea. If you asked her, “Maureen, what happens when you are three?” she would respond, “No diapers. No pacifiers. No sippy cups. I’ll be a BIG girl!” Not only that, but she met her deadline early. All of a sudden, one day she decided she was done with diapers. (She still wears one at night but she’s completely independent in the bathroom during the day and very reliable.) The sippy cups went too. It’s such a pleasure to no longer have to stick my hand into the sink drain to retrieve a valve. The pacifiers went into a drawer, just in case she changed her mind.

Her birthday was two months ago, and the transition from diapers to toilet and pacifier to none has continued to be smooth. And while it’s true that she used a paci longer than pediatricians recommend and she potty trained a little later than it’s possible to force it, I felt like both transitions were smooth and peaceful and gentle. Even better, because I put her in charge of deciding when she was ready, I feel like the lessons she learned from those decisions will have a greater impact than if I had been the one to issue an ultimatum about the diapers or pacifiers.

As she grows and matures and her thought processes become more complex, I can almost hear the wheels turning in her head as she considers her options, and it’s most obvious when it comes to interacting with her older brother.

Every day, we have plenty of opportunities to allow our children to make choices, everything from what pajamas they wear to what they eat for lunch to what bedtime book they read. I hope that by allowing my children to make seemingly unimportant decisions like these, that they will go off to school with a sense of self control that will serve them well as students and as members of society.

Today, while cleaning out a drawer, I found the forgotten pacifiers. This time, I relocated them to where they belong–the trash can.

12 thoughts on “The Power Of Choice”

  1. What if they decide they never want to use to potty 🙁 My son turn three earlier this month and has ZERO interest in using the toilet. I have tried bribing him with everything from M&Ms to SpiderMan undies! Any suggestions?

  2. Letting things happen naturally is a great way to raise a child. Forcing and prodding have never (in my own experiences) gotten children to do anything happily. Harmony must be established between your child and yourself….and then the independence, potty training and letting go of the paci will follow suit!

  3. I am not so sure your methods are congruent with the real world.
    If the bus arrives at 6:30 am, and your child is not on it, it will leave with out her. If your child’s decision about food choices holds up the waitress at a busy restaurant… that’s rude and inconsiderate. If your child refuses to wear a hat and gloves in winter…. and chooses to go without, she will get frost bite. More often than not, kids need the experience and logic of responsible adults. Having that security provides the level ground that gives them common sense as adults.

  4. We do the same with our 28 month old. We offer many insignificant-seeming choices. It works wonders for us. We got the idea from Love & Logic. It is a series of books I have come to love and respect. Basically, the idea is that you you raise responsible, respectful kids and you don’t live a life full of screaming matches and stress. You respectfully set limits. You offer choices in most areas. Our daughter has responded very well to it. I strongly recommend it.

  5. I am not a parent, but I speak as the child of a parent that did allow me to make my own choices, and I totally agree. My dad always valued my opinion, as a child and teenager. Whether he agreed or not, I was able to voice my opinion and have a say in family and personal decisions. It left us with a sense of trust and I actually didn’t rebel as much because I didn’t want to let my dad down. I knew the freedom I had was rare. It’s still something that sticks out to me now nearly 30 years later and I’m so thankful that my dad treated me as a real person and not an employee.

  6. Great post. We took the same route when potty training our girls, and they worked out fine.

    I love the book How To Talk So Children Will Listen….because it too stresses the importance of offering choice in discipline.

  7. Great post. Why do people force potty training? It’s not as though they will be better on the toilet if they start early! I’ve heard, “Start potty training at 2, finish at 3. Start potty training at 3, finish at 3.” Why put your child and yourself through all the stress? My daughter is 26 months and she uses the potty when she wants to, but otherwise, it’s diapers.

  8. @Eileen–I think you’ve misunderstood the point of my post. The point is not to let your children walk all over you and pick and choose what they want and don’t want to do. The point is to give them a little say in things, especially in matters that are insignificant in the long run, such as what pajamas to wear. Like I said in my post, some rules are not open to interpretation. But in nearly every scenario, there IS an opportunity to let choice come into play. For example, it’s not negotiable when it comes to wearing shoes outside, but WHICH shoes my 3 year old wears is negotiable. It’s about teaching your children to consider all their options before making a decision and then living with the results of that decision. It starts with small choices as a toddler, and grows into bigger choices as tweens and young adults.

    Here’s another example—in my house, bike helmets are a hard and fast rule. If the helmet isn’t on, the bike riding, ice skating or roller skating does not take place. Period. Over the summer, we were meeting friends at the playground, and my daughter’s playmate usually brings her bike and the girls take turns riding it. On this day, my daughter was adamant that she did not want to bring her helmet along, and I reminded her that if her friend brought her bike and the helmet was at home, she wouldn’t be able to ride. She still wanted to leave it home, and sure enough, the friend showed up with her bike and I stuck to my guns. No helmet, no bike. She wasn’t happy about it, but it was her choice. And since then she’s brought along her helmet without a fuss.

    Obviously, you have to tailor the choice-making so it’s age-appropriate too. Giving a 2 year old 10 different choices on a restaurant menu and expecting them to choose in a reasonable amount of time isn’t realistic. Giving them 2 or 3 choices and setting a time limit before choosing for them is the more practical choice, especially if the waitress is ready to take your order. My 3 year old is certainly capable of deciding if she wants milk or water with her lunch, but asking her to decide which of her 14 classmates she wants to have a playdate with is a bit of a stretch, And a 15 year old is old enough to decide if she wants to set her clothes and books out the night before school or get up 20 minutes earlier to do it so she can make the bus on time.

    Honestly, I feel like letting my kids make some of their own choices has really made them more independent. I can tell my 5 year old to go get dressed and know that he’ll be able to pick something out, put it on, get his shoes on, brush his teeth and comb his hair without me following behind him, prompting and prodding. And because he knows he will have choices available to him during the day, he’s more likely to accept the rules that are rock solid—such as carseats, no name calling, no hitting, etc.

  9. I heard this exact thing on Dr Phil years ago. Going to bed, taking baths, and wearing a jacket when its cold are non-negotiable. But instead of giving the order, turn it into a question: which bedtime story, which bath toys, which jacket do you want to wear etc. I’d always planned to do that, but your post reminded me of how many different creative ways there are to give children numerous harmless opportunities to choose for themselves throughout their day.

  10. Fantastic. I used this idea when weaning my daughter from the breast. Afterwards I felt like we chose together to wean because she had months to deal with it, come to terms with it and eventually accept it. Then when her third birthday rolled around she really was done. But if only I had done this with the diapers. She was 3yrs and 10 months when she finally potty trained. And still it was because we pretty much gave her no choice. Oh well. Things are working better along these lines with dd number 2.

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