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Teaching Your Child to Choose

The following stories are all true:

  • The park, at dusk. A mother, noticing other parents packing up, asks her 5-year-old daughter, "Do you want to go?" The daughter, who's on the slide, says, "No." The sky darkens, the streetlights come on, and the mother insists that they leave. The daughter throws a huge tantrum.

  • Starbucks, early morning. A father orders himself a cappuccino. "What would you like?" he asks his 4-year-old son. The boy says he'll have the same. "Wouldn't you rather have a hot chocolate?" "No." Dad pays for the $4 beverage. The boy takes a sip, spits it out, and says he wants a hot chocolate. Dad gets him one.

  • A diner, dinnertime. A mom and dad walk in with their daughter, 3. Mom says, "Where would you like to sit? Do you like this table? Do you want a high chair? What would you like to eat? Hamburger? Chicken nuggets? Soup? Omelette?" The girl stares mutely at the wall.

  • A kitchen, after school. A mom and her friend try to set up a lunch date. Mom looks at her calendar. "Lunch is tough; I have to be back for the kids' activities. Mondays, Sarah has dance and Leigh has swim. Tuesdays, Sarah has art and Leigh has dance. Wednesdays, both have Hebrew school. Thursdays, Sarah has swim; Leigh has soccer practice. Fridays, they both have piano," says the mom. "Isn't that too much for them and you?" the friend asks. Mom shrugs and says, "I do get overwhelmed. But they want to do it all. How can I say no?"

    A critical parenting mistake is being made in each scene above. The consequences may seem small (a tantrum, paying for two drinks, a zoned-out child, a strung-out mom), but with repetition, incidents like these can result in an entitled, anxious, confused, and/or bratty kid. The key error these parents have unwittingly made (or have committed on purpose, believing their children would benefit from it in some way): They've given their kids virtually unlimited power to make choices.

    The Luxury of Choice

    As adults, we make a jillion decisions every day. It's a skill that's fundamental to basic functioning. What's more, the freedom to make individual choices is part of our national identity, a birthright. Quite naturally, we want to share that spirit of independence with our kids.

    "Presenting kids with choices provides them with a great opportunity to learn about their inner capacities, regulate their behavior, and figure out how to accomplish goals," says Peter Gorski, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. Besides, enforcing a totalitarian state on your brood will only "restrict creativity, constrain will, and give them a sense that life's course is beyond their control," he says.

    Many parents have taken this message and run with it, believing that if a few choices are good, more must be better. But presenting a surfeit of options doesn't translate into greater self-esteem or happiness. Just the opposite. "An infinite number of choices will make a child anxious and insecure," says Dr. Gorski. "Think how you feel when you have a dozen important decisions to make. What we think are small issues, such as what to wear or what to eat, are huge to a child." So having to make too many choices  -- even kid-size ones  -- can be overwhelming.

    The fact is, children are more comfortable within boundaries. "A child who acts up is begging with her behavior to be shown limits," says Dr. Gorski.

    The sheer quantity of options parents give their kids is just one way to fill them with doubt and anxiety. The kind of choices offered is another. An open-ended question like "What do you want to do today?" presents the risk of your child making a decision you don't like. Before dangling the luxury of choice, you should have the assurance that any of the options that you've presented are acceptable.

    Parents also often expect kids to make decisions about things that are irrelevant to them. Referring to the mother who asks her daughter whether she'd like to sit at this or that restaurant table, Dr. Gorski says, "It's useless to ask the child's opinion on the subject because she probably doesn't have one." Nor does she have the sophistication required to make such a decision (noticing where the smoking section is, weighing the merits of a booth versus a table, checking the proximity of the noisy busboy station).

    Some matters, though relevant to a child, are simply beyond the scope of her expertise. "A child who has no life experience does not get an equal vote on something, even if it will have a big effect on her," says Dana Chidekel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Parents in Charge: Setting Healthy, Loving Boundaries for You and Your Child. "Make the large decisions as a parent, and help your child sort through her feelings about your decisions. She has to realize that not everything in life is up to her."

    Having no choice about the arrival of a baby sister or wearing snow boots can lead a kid to complain. And that can strike dread in a parent's heart. "Many parents believe that if a child is sad or angry, they've erred in some way," says Chidekel. "Wrong. If you know your decision is right, you just have to tolerate your child's feelings and make sure they don't influence your actions. Mad or sad, she will survive, you will survive, and the relationship will survive."

    A clue that your fear of whining, crying, or carrying-on has put your child in the decision-making driver's seat? "When a parent feels out of control, the kids are in control," says Don Shifrin, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle.


    [STYLE {
  • What they can have a say over:} {SECTION}] What to eat and what to wear. Anything else is simply too much for children this age to handle. "It's fundamental biology," says Chidekel. "Their limited frontal-lobe development and utter lack of life experience preclude them from making more complex  -- or important  -- decisions."

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  • How to present options:} {SECTION}] When it's dinnertime and your child is hungry, don't open the refrigerator and say, "What do you want to eat?" Children just can't make that decision. "If I let my daughter, Sam, choose what she wants to eat, she'd have candy every time," says Cathy Lappin, a mother of three in Chicago.

    Better than avoidance  -- or short-order cheffing  -- is to give two meal choices, get a decision from your child or make one yourself, then cook the preferred dish. "More than two options will overwhelm a toddler," says Dr. Gorski. "If you say, 'You can have grilled cheese or pasta or a hot dog or pizza or a sandwich,' he won't be able to remember it all. He'll get confused, on top of being hungry and tired." Should your picky eater say no to both choices, he'll have to be satisfied with the third, unspoken option of nothing. The next night, he'll likely jump at the chance to make an affirmative decision.

    The same choice-of-two approach works for clothing. "Ava would wear the same Cinderella panties every day," says Stacy Title, a mother of two in Los Angeles, "and she'd wear only pink. My attitude is that as long as it's weather-appropriate and clean, she can decide."

    That's fine, say experts, as long as you keep choices within limits: "This clean pink shirt or that clean pink shirt?" or, for someone less monochromatically inclined, "The blue shirt or the red shirt?" The key is quantity control.

    Naturally, if you ask, "Red or blue?" many kids will say, "Green." Stick to your guns. "If your toddler sees you mean business, he'll stop testing," says Chidekel.

    [STYLE {

  • When to limit choices:} {SECTION}] Easy at this age  -- when your child is exhausted, cranky, or showing other signs that he's very obviously near a breaking point, that's the time to forget about choices altogether. "Stop asking kind, sensitive questions and start issuing statements," says Dr. Gorski.


    [STYLE {
  • What they can have a say over:} {SECTION}] Now the spectrum widens from food and clothes to include activities (swimming or gymnastics), entertainment (TV shows, computer games, videos), and how to spend some family time (park or zoo). Kids between 3 and 5 years old will also want to decide when to go to bed, whether to brush their hair, when to turn off the TV. Your job: to make it clear that there's a difference between personal preference and household rules (as in "You can choose which flavor toothpaste to use, but not whether you have to brush").

    [STYLE {

  • How to present options:} {SECTION}] With patience. "The preschooler believes that everything is related to what she thinks or does or says," says Dr. Gorski. "Therefore, each decision is monumentally important to her."

    Because her choices have huge weight, she may take forever to pick. It could take ten minutes for a 3-year-old to select a breakfast cereal. To move things along, "give her to the count of three to make a decision," says Chidekel. "If she can't do it by then, she loses her chance until the next time." Dr. Shifrin recommends using a kitchen timer  -- its ticking may speed up the decision.

    Another danger point at this age: implied choices. Review the scenario about leaving the park at dusk. The mother is thinking, "It's time to go," but she makes the mistake of asking her daughter, "Do you want to go?" If you care about the answer, whether for safety, comfort, time constraints, or plain old personal convenience, don't ask a question that suggests your preschooler has a choice.

    [STYLE {

  • When to limit choices:} {SECTION}] After a long day. Decisions are too trying then. Let your child weigh in on dinner, perhaps, but after that, you call the shots. Pick the TV show, her bedtime, and the book you'll read. Spare your child the responsibility.


    [STYLE {
  • What they can have a say over:} {SECTION}] All the decisions a 3-year-old can make (food, clothes, activities, entertainment), as well as who their friends are and how to act in an acceptable manner inside their new social world.

    [STYLE {

  • How to present options:} {SECTION}] Parents can guide children 6 and older to reflect back on previous choices made and evaluate the results and consequences of those decisions. In other words, if first-grader Sally once elected to go on a playdate with Suzy and had a terrible time, she can now use that past experience to make future decisions. "You might routinely ask, 'What do you think would happen if you did that?'" says Dr. Gorski. "Just supply strategies and conscience, and your child will start to learn to make informed choices."

    Kids also need to learn to be flexible. "Point out that yesterday he got to pick the movie. Today his sister gets to choose," says Dr. Shifrin.

    At this age, you needn't lay out specifics. You can open up the fridge at dinnertime and ask a 6-year-old, "What should we make?" If his choice meets your health requirements, you can ask him to help cook too. Right there, both freedom and responsibility in one call. As for getting dressed, if his selections are climate-friendly (and not too strange), he should have as much leeway in that department as your personal sense of aesthetics will allow.

    [STYLE {

  • When to limit choices:} {SECTION}] "The family is a community," says Dr. Shifrin. "Not everyone's needs are met all the time. Your child can learn now that fair is not always equal and that he doesn't always get to decide what the family does on a Sunday, even if he's a big brother. The parent has to reinforce the sharing of choices and the idea that you can't please everyone all the time." Spread the freedom of choice around (what to do, where to eat, which tapes to play, which shows to watch), and remove the option from the first-grader's plate on occasion. It's democratic. And you won't have to spend quite as much time listening to Britney Spears.


  • What they can have a say over: Though house rules (bedtime, chores, homework hours, and so on) still apply and permission is still needed to go on a playdate, have a sleepover, or watch a PG-13 movie, everything else can be open to discussion. "This is when kids are developmentally able to perceive grander plans," says Chidekel. "Many decisions can be judged on a case-by-case basis. I'd even allow children at ten or twelve to weigh in on larger decisions  -- where the family goes on vacation, which summer camp to attend, which instrument to play  -- under the auspices of your authority."

  • How to present options: Now that kids are getting to make more decisions, the challenge for parents is dealing with the consequences of their children's poor choices. Often, kids have regrets. One example: an 8-year-old who's dying to take ballet class, then hates it. "She might dislike the class because she has the wrong clothes or isn't as good as the other kids. Unless the problem is onerous, the parent should encourage her to stick by her decision and think more carefully before she makes the next one," says Dr. Shifrin. "Kids need to make mistakes. Let them, now and then."

  • When to limit choices: The 2-year-old needs to select one of two shirts; the 10-year-old needs to pick two (or three) of ten activities. If you don't limit the number, your child will want to take every class, go on every playdate and sleepover, check out every movie  -- in effect, run you and herself ragged. You simply can't say yes to everything.

    One of the beautiful things about limiting choices with your kids throughout their childhood, though, is that you're instilling in them the ability to reason. So, when faced with a tough decision at 14, your child will have the skills to make the right choice. And she'll have you to thank for making her commit to pizza or grilled cheese when she was 2.

    Contributing editor Valerie Frankel's new novel, [XREF {} {The Accidental Virgin} {_blank}], is due out in March 2003.

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