When to Give Your Children Options Instead of Choices

I recently overheard a mother talking to her daughter in a toy department that left me scratching my head – she was reasoning with her little girl as if she were an adult.

“Now I want you to think about this and ask yourself if you will really play with this toy,” she said to the girl, who was enthusiastically bobbing her head up and down with big doe eyes pleading, “Yes mommy, I proooomise I will.”

My first response was, “Really?”. Then in an alternate universe, I imagined the little girl saying, “Come mom, of course I'm going to promise you that I'll play with this toy, because I'm only 5-years-old and my brain only understands the concept of instant gratification." 

The scenario brings up a question about choices:  As parents, how do we find a healthy balance between giving our children choices so they can learn independence, but at the same time not give them too much power, because their brains aren’t sophisticated enough to see and comprehend the bigger picture? 

Is There Such a Thing As Too Many Choices?

There's no doubt in my mind that the mom in my story was trying to teach her daughter the importance of both having and making choices. But as parents, sometimes we can’t give our children too many choices because they’re not old enough to understand what the choices really mean. 

As the adult who can think ahead and see the bigger picture, we have to limit the playing field of our kids' choices to only those options that we believe are best for them. We need to set limitations and boundaries for our kids so that they learn to make good choices later on, when they really count.

It’s one thing to let them choose between Cheerios or oatmeal, because those are short-term decisions that our children’s brains can handle. But when we start asking them to make decisions that may impact them, say, a month from now... then we find ourselves in murky waters.  Having choices gives us all a sense of freedom and autonomy, but giving our kids inappropriate choices before their brain’s prefrontal cortex is developed enough to think ahead could very well leave us with a spoiled child.

Our goal is 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 only when their brains have fully developed to the point where they can be self-regulated enough to say, “Wow, I don’t think that I really need this doll today, because if I think this through, in the past I quickly lost interest in these types of things. So looking ahead,  I will probably lose interest in this one too… So, nevermind.” 

The Power of Options

It’s only natural that as parents, we would want to respect and encourage our children’s need for independence. But the truth is, so many of us seem to fall short when trying to find that perfect balance between giving our kids choices, and giving them options.  To some, this may just sound like semantics, but there really is a difference.

To choose is the act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities, while an option is a thing that may be chosen.  The bottom line is, as the adult, we sometimes have to take away choices that our little ones are too immature to successfully reason through, and replace them with options that fall within the parameters we design for them as parents.

So instead of saying, “What do you want for breakfast?” which, can turn into a meltdown if they want chocolate pancakes covered in jelly beans, we give them options like Cheerios, or oatmeal.

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.

As our children’s ability to reason in more concrete terms develops between 7-11 years, we can begin to give them more choices and let them learn to value the power and impact of their actions and decisions. In the meantime, it’s up to us to limit their choices to only the options that we believe best suit their ability to reason. We do this by adopting the philosophy that sometimes less is indeed more.

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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