ABCs of Child Psychiatry

Real info about children's mental health

Child Behavior as “Choices:” Not Quite Correct but Right

The effects of assuming that kids can always control their behavior

A four-year-old is playing with a toy car when his mother tells him it is time to stop playing and come to the table for dinner.  The boy initially refuses.  The mother crouches down, looks him in the eye, and opens her hand.  “Please give mommy the toy now,” she says.  “No!” the boys replies, and then throws the toy at her face. 

“That was a bad choice,” the mother says, and into time-out he goes.

Scenes like have been repeated all over the world for centuries.  What is slightly newer, however, is the framing and conscious labelling of negative child behavior as a choice.   When and how exactly this shift occurred I am not quite sure (and maybe one of you reading this can help as I’d be interesting in learning that).  It seemed to coincide with the effort to get away from adults labelling a child’s character (e.g. “You are a bad girl!”) and towards judgments of specific behavior.  There also seems to be perhaps a little hypnotic suggestion in the practice, as though by labelling it a choice the child will learn to understand it as such and exert more and more control over his or her actions.

It’s a nice plan, although parents and experts alike, even those who employ the term all the time, are often a bit skeptical of this formulation.  This is not like standing at a vending machine, deciding between Coke and Pepsi while your finger goes back and forth between the buttons.  It takes time for those “executive function” centers in the frontal cortex to connect to those more reactive parts of the brain, and some children really do struggle more than others in the ability to regulate emotions, behavior, and attention. 

Is there a down side for classifying all behavior as choice, at least to a child’s face?  Maybe.  By using the term in a child who repeatedly misbehaves, it conveys the message that they really should be able to stop.  Ironically, the labelling of specific behaviors as choices could lead to a child feeling even more defective.

Some caution aside, however, I’m not in favor of throwing out the practice.  All children can control their behavior to some degree, and it seems to me the best way to rob someone of their potential is to assume they can’t do something in the first place.  Better to start with an assumption of control and then let them prove you wrong than the other way around.  A parent or teacher can also introduce some nuances to the system without necessarily changing the terminology.  While still framing behavior as a choice to the child in order to try and maximize effort, for example, there may be some change in the consequences that acknowledges this complexity. 

The idea of child behavior as a choice is likely to stick around for a while, at least until the next shift in culture.  In the meantime, the choice model seems to work pretty well, as long as it isn’t taken to the extreme. 

@copyright by David Rettew, MD

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

David Rettew is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Follow him at @PediPsych and like PediPsych on Facebook.

David Rettew, M.D., is a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont and author of Child Temperament: New Thinking about the Boundary between Traits and Illness.

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