Choices and children can be an explosive combination, one that is often fraught with traps.
So why bother with choices for young children, why not just tell children what to wear, what to eat, and so on?
Why is it important for children to choose?
Important life skill
Learning to make choices is an important part of your child's ongoing quest for independence.
The quest for independence is a strong innate drive within every child, as a parent this evolving drive can be frustrating and is often a source of conflict.
Like many things which appear simple, giving a child choice is not necessarily as easy as it sounds.
Informed choice requires knowledge and understanding
If we agree that learning to make choices is an important life skill how can you go about it?
How can you maximise the positive outcomes and minimise conflict?
An important starting point is to remember that your small child has little experience of the world and therefore little understanding of the implications of any particular choice or action.
Understanding the consequences
To make an informed choice an understanding of the consequences is required.
You know (for example) why eating a nutritionally balanced diet, getting enough sleep, or taking medicine are important for well being, the child has no such understanding.
You know the impact of serious head injury, the child does not and can not.
What happens when you give your child an open-ended choice?
Usually, it goes something like this…. you ask your child what they would like for breakfast.
You probably do so thinking of all the usual breakfast choices, then when the child answers “ice-cream” you are surprised and then, unsurprisingly, you say “no”.
The result is that the child is confused and understandably really annoyed. You asked what they would like and they would like ice-cream and you said “no”.
A tearful argument is the most likely outcome and the result is that everyone is unhappy.
Here’s the thing, your young child does not know when you said “what would you like for breakfast?” what you actually meant was “which of our usual breakfast foods what would you prefer this morning?”
They thought you actually meant “what would you like for breakfast?” and they would like ice-cream.
Clear communication is so important to family harmony that I devote one module of my Montessori Parenting - raising calm contented kids course to it.
It makes such a difference to the happiness of everyone in the family.
Giving the child a limited choice, asking 'would you like porridge or yoghurt and fruit for breakfast?' makes it clear to everyone what's on offer.
If the child then answers “ice-cream” your response is much easier and far less confusing to the child.
”I understand you would like ice-cream however the choices for breakfast today are porridge or yoghurt and fruit, so which would you prefer?”.
The same principle applies to all choices
As you are the adult you understand the consequences, avoid a negative outcome by limiting the choices to appropriate alternatives.
Clothing is a common source of stress.
Asking a young child what they'd like to wear often results in conflict as the young child wants to wear the sparkly party dress to play outside in the sandpit, new bathers on a winter day or a coat in the middle fo summer.
Offering the child a choice between appropriate examples gives the child a degree of independence and helps develop an understanding of appropriate choices for particular situations.
Just like the other examples when offering food choices always list the options or display the suitable options and allow the child to choose.
Honing the choice skill
As the child matures and develops a greater understanding of the world so the parameters of the available choices are widened.
This way choosing becomes a positive interaction between parent and child and at the same time furthers the child's understanding of the world.