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5 Guidelines for Giving Kids Choices

Giving kids a say builds relationships and strengthens cooperation.

Providing young children opportunities to use their voices, make decisions, develop ownership, and solve problems are great ways to bond with them too.

Giving kids a say also:

  • builds respect,
  • strengthens community,
  • invites cooperation,
  • develops problem-solving skills, and
  • capitalizes on kids’ normal human need for power and control.

Here are 5 guidelines for giving kids a voice and a say:

Avoid overwhelming them

Kids want and expect their parents to provide structure and make key family decisions. It helps them feel safe. While it’s great to give kids a say in things, too many or too big of choices can overwhelm them or put too much pressure on them.

Give young children the choice between only two things. If they don’t or can’t pick between the two, don’t offer a third. (This doesn’t include “free play time,” where they should be able to do whatever they’re interested in.)

Be consistent

If you give children choices once, but not the next time, they naturally get frustrated and protest. Their confusion often results in them "pushing back," questioning, or refusing to comply as a way to determine where the "real" boundaries are. Adults often end up viewing this "push-back" as uncooperative or acting-out behavior when it is really just a way for children to determine the extent of their power.

If one night you say, “What do you want for dinner?” and the next night you say, “We’re having lasagna and you can’t have anything different,” they are likely to whine or protest because boundaries become confusing.

If one weekend you ask, “What do you want to do this morning? Our whole family will do anything you want.” And the next weekend you say, “You are going with Dad to the grocery store then coming to a friend’s house with me,” kids may not understand the incongruence.

Create a ritual around choices

Make certain choices "rituals." For example, when you go to the park, name two parks and they choose which one. Every Saturday morning they may choose to run errands with you or stay home. Every Friday movie night, put two movies in front of your child and let them choose one. At the library, always let them choose 5 books. At night, they can choose night light on or door open. At lunch, they can choose water or milk to drink. At dinner, they can eat the regular meal or eat Cheerios instead (or whatever choices work for your own family).

Ask them to help you fix problems

If your child is having trouble doing the tasks needed to get out the door, put him in charge. Create a checklist on a clipboard of stick-figure pictures of all the things he needs to do to get ready, and have him cross off each thing as it gets done.

Ask your child to help you solve the problem of caps not being put back on markers. (She will be more likely to put the caps on, no matter what strategy she comes up with).

If there are books all over your child’s bedroom floor, ask her how she thinks the floor could stay clear.

Thank and reinforce

If your child shoveled his books off the floor, you could say, “Wow, this shovel idea you thought of is really working out well. I see the floor is as clear as ever! You’re really taking care of your room.”

If your child chose swimming over hiking, you might say, “Thanks for choosing swimming. It was so fun to splash in the water with you.”

If your child chooses to run errands with you, comment, "I'm so glad you chose to help me out. Doing errands is always more fun with you by my side."

20 Ways to Give Young Children Ownership and a Say

  • Ask them if they want to use a packaged thank you card for their teacher or make their own
  • Ask if they want to check out books at the library or just play at the library
  • Ask if they want to go to X nature center or Y nature center
  • Ask if they want you to butter their pancake or if they want to butter it themselves
  • Let them play DJ and choose songs to play for the family
  • Ask if they want you to hang a photo in their room over here or over there
  • Ask if they want to hold the light bulb or be the light bulb tester
  • Let them choose a book to read at night
  • Ask if they want to play I Spy or listen to music while riding in the car
  • Ask if they want heart shaped sandwiches or regular square sandwiches for lunch
  • Ask if they want to watch their TV show before or after lunch
  • Ask which homework or academic activity they want to complete first
  • Ask if they want you to tap them on the shoulder or tickle their ear when it’s time to get out of the swimming pool
  • Ask them to think of a code word you can say so they’ll know it’s time to head home from the park
  • Ask if they want you to hang their art work on the fridge or on the wall
  • Ask if they think you should buy dad a coffee cup or a football hat for his birthday
  • Ask them if they want to set the table or clear the plates
  • Ask if they want their banana whole or cut into pieces
  • Ask them to help you choose the snacks to pack for a picnic
  • Ask if they want to ride in the cart or walk in the grocery store

Copyright Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD. Parts of this blog post have been excerpted from The Joy Fix for Weary Parents.

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