End Power Struggles by Giving Kids Options Instead of Open-Ended Choices

I recently overheard a mother talking to her daughter in a toy department, an interaction that was confusing in its mixed messages:

“You can pick out any toy you like for your birthday,” she said to the girl, who looked like…well, a child in a toyshop with a million dollars in her pocket.

She ran through the aisles, looking at all the possibilities. She gazed through stacks upon stacks, considering so many toys until she looked so exhausted and overwhelmed that she burst into tears and told her mother that she just couldn’t choose. Her mother prodded and encouraged her to make a decision and she finally picked a dollhouse to which her mother said, “Really, you want that? No, it’s too expensive; pick something else.”

The little girl unraveled into a full-blown tantrum and the two engaged in a huge power struggle until the mother finally relented.

In this exchange, the mother gave her child power – the power to choose in an open-ended and undefined way – and once her daughter used that power, she immediately stripped her of it.

Every human being needs to feel powerful and in control. In being able to make decisions and to choose, our children are able to exert the little power they feel that they have in this world. When they feel powerless, they tend to dig deep into their arsenal of weaponry and pull out their mightiest tantrum in a last ditch effort to get their power back.

As parents, we need to find a healthy balance between giving our children choices so they can feel empowered and learn independence, but at the same time not give them too much power that our relationship suffers for it.

Is There Such a Thing As Too Many Choices?

Making choices is important to a child’s development and helps them learn how to make wise decisions and speak their minds. It helps children build a sense of self-respect as we place our trust in them to make good decisions. Giving them the freedom to choose also helps develop their problem-solving and independent thinking skills, and satisfies their natural need for power and control.

As a culture, we tend to think of an endless stream of options as positive. We believe that choices give us freedom and as parents, it’s common to think that a greater variety of choices better allows our children to discover their preferences and personalities whereas limited choices restrict their growth.

However, while giving choices has its benefits, too many options can lead to decision fatigue, overwhelm, and power struggles.

There's no doubt in my mind that the mom in the toy store was trying to gift her daughter the power of making choices on her birthday. But we have to remember that sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to our children.

The Power of Options

It’s only natural that as parents, we want to respect and encourage our children’s need for independence and control. But the truth is, many of us seem to fall short when we give our kids open-ended choices, rather than limited options. As the adult, we need to provide reasonable options so that they can exercise their power to choose within our parameters.

It’s one thing to let our children choose between granola or oatmeal for breakfast, but when ask the open-ended question, “What would you like to eat this morning?,” we open up the possibility of our children either 1) feeling overwhelmed by all the possibilities or 2) selecting an item which is outside the range of available options. If our child answers, “I would like icing for breakfast,” we’re then put in a position where we have to withdraw the control we’ve just given to them. We can explain why icing isn’t an available option and hope that our child is open to reasoning. But depending on their level of maturity and their mood, we might be facing a power struggle.

Our goal should be to give our children both roots and wings. We tell ourselves that by arming our kids with the ability to make choices on their own, we are building up their wings for future use. And this is indeed true, but limiting their options keeps them rooted within our parameters. They gain a sense of freedom and autonomy, while we’re able to uphold our values and our rules without a fight. In this way, we don’t open ourselves up to a power struggle, but we allow them to develop intellectually and exercise control.

It’s common sense, yet many of us still find ourselves in similar scenarios as the mother in the toy aisle – each of us trying to do our best to teach our kids that they have the right to choices, but not fully realizing that they may not yet be mature enough to navigate them.

Making Options Work

When giving our children the right to choose, it’s important to be clear and intentional. Here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • Avoid overwhelming kids with too many options. It’s wonderful to give our children a voice and a reasonable amount of control. By limiting the options when they’re very little to just two items, we simplify the decision-making process for them. As they grow, we can add to their available options. But remember that too many options for a single choice can overwhelm kids and make it very difficult for them to choose.
  • Limit the number of daily choices. Even as adults, we can fall prey to decision fatigue. This happens when we’re presented with too many choices in a short amount of time and feel overwhelmed by making decision after decision. Over time, we tend to feel worn down, unable to give each new choice the attention it requires. By limiting the number of choices our kids are asked to make in a day, we can make sure they give their full attention to the fewer choices we do present to them.
  • Offer options that you feel comfortable with. When we present our children with options, we need to make they fall within the parameters of what’s reasonable and comfortable for us. We can’t blame our kids for picking an option that adds stress or pressure to our lives. Keep focused on the goals: empowering your kids with the freedom to choose while avoiding power struggles.
  • Be clear and consistent. We need to decide what choices we feel our kids can make. Can they pick their clothes? Make their own selection from a restaurant menu? Choose an activity but only for an hour? We need to have clear rules about what is within their realm of decision-making. By giving them control over certain choices, they’ll feel empowered and trusted. But if we go back and forth on what we allow them, we’re going to face whining, protests, and more power struggles.
  • Don’t ask permission or give up your own parenting control. Many of us have the tendency to turn our requests into questions. It’s a bad habit and we’re usually unaware of doing it. “Carrots or broccoli….pick the vegetable you want to eat, ok?” “You can wear the red shirt or the green shirt, ok?” By adding ‘ok?’ to our requests, we undermine our own parenting and open ourselves up to protests.
  • Be clear about non-negotiable items. Our lives are filled with non-negotiable items and obligations. When choice is not an option, we have to put out foot down to gently and affectionately explain those cases. For example your child may be allowed to pick between going to the park or to the library after their doctor’s appointment, but the appointment itself isn’t an option, it’s a must.
  • Make sure everyone gets their say. For certain activities like Saturday dinners or family movie night, let everyone take turns choosing. Just as we want our kids to feel empowered by their choices, they also have to learn to respect other people’s choices without whining or complaints. Our kids need to know that they are part of a family, not the center of one.

As parents, we have to limit the playing field of our kids' choices to only those options that are reasonable and in the parameters of what is possible for our own families. We need to set limitations and boundaries for our kids to empower them to make good choices later on, when they really count.

What types of choices do you entrust to your kids? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Tags : conscious parenting   mindful parenting   development   

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