Parenting Techniques: Limited Choices

By Jennifer “Jen” Drager, LPC

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As a professional in the world of family counseling and parenting, I am often asked what my go-to parenting strategies are. My favorite and most suggested parenting technique is limited choices. Offering choices instead of demands can be a very effective parenting tool, as opposed to being told what to do. Think back to your adolescent years and remember that feeling you would get when someone tried to tell you what to think, feel or do. Kids, like adults, do not like to be told what to do; but rather thrive on being given choices. Our children usually respond better to offering a choice, making them a part of the decision-making process, mainly when provided with the opportunity of “you decide.”

However, when we provide choices, it is important to limit them to choices we can agree to and live with. For example, you’re a brave parent who has taken their child to the grocery store. You’ve decided that you would like to educate your young child on the beauty of determining what you can purchase and eat. You roll into the cereal aisle, and you tell your 5-year-old to pick out cereal with no boundaries, and they choose the unhealthiest sugary cereal in the aisle; because, as we all know, the unhealthiest cereals are at the eye level of the population known for the least amount of self-control. You now have a choice as a parent, allow them to have what they picked, or tell them no and watch the sure-to-be meltdown occur. They are not melting down because you tell them no; it is because of you taking their control of the situation away. You placed them in a situation where they would respond as kids and pick what they wanted. However, this scenario could have gone differently if you had placed a few limitations on the choices.

Let’s rewind that scenario and try it a little differently. We are at the grocery store, we come rolling down into the cereal aisle, and we say, “Hey, I’d like you to pick out the cereal you would like for breakfast this week, would you like raisin bran, honey nut cheerios or strawberry banana cheerios? You choose.” We have now set very defined and healthy boundaries on a situation that allows our children to have some control over their lives. There may be some pushback for a different cereal; you can then validate their request, “I know that you want Cocoa Puffs, but that cereal is not an option.” Remind them of the choices available, or potentially compromise if they have one you approve of. If they refuse to choose, you follow up with “Here is your opportunity to choose your cereal; if you don’t decide, I will have to choose for you.”

By allowing our children to make these small choices, we set them up for making responsible decisions as they grow and often eliminate tantrums because they have some control over their life decisions. Limited choices will not permanently eliminate tantrums or negative behaviors, but they will establish a consistent boundary of allowing your child(ren) to control their everyday situations with choices you can live with.