If you ask a child what they want, I guarantee you most of them will say “to be an adult,” “to make my own decisions” (at least my son does these days). We constantly tell children what they have to do, what they should do, what they can do. We give them no control but expect them to always be in control.
Most of my son’s tantrums as a toddler were over feeling that lack of control over his life. I’ve learned over the years with my two boys that by giving them choices, they have developed a needed autonomy over their own lives.
Children crave control in every situation. So how, as parents, can we give them that without actually giving them full control?
Working with children with autism, I’ve learned the art of giving choices while still accomplishing the initial goal of managing behavior or completing work in the classroom. I’ve carried this over into my parenting, making a world of difference in my children’s behavior.
The art of giving choices. How does that work?
Often, as parents, we find ourselves in situations with our children in which they are asking for something we do not want them to have.
For example, my son will barrel into the pantry, screaming he is hungry, to get snacks. First, I want to change this behavior, so I prompt him to use his words correctly (I’ve previously taught him how to ask for a snack politely). When he uses his words, “May I please have a snack?” I agree, but wait, I don’t really want him to be eating chips and snacks all day, SO I return with the choice of “Yes, you may have an apple or cheese stick.”
This was not what my son wanted, but since he asked politely, I would allow him to have a snack. It’s not the one he wants, but by putting it into a choice, he now feels he still has control over the situation. If he complains, “I want chips,” then the choice becomes, “Well, you can have one of the snacks I offered or nothing.”
Let’s say my son is having an “emotional meltdown” (we call them this now because they are too old to tantrum, in my opinion). He wants something that I am not willing to give him. The choice then becomes, “you can go play outside or take a time-out in your room.” Or, “you can go calm down on your own, or you can receive a consequence for your behavior.” During these emotional meltdowns, the choice is really centered around calming down or consequences for behavior.
Another issue we often find ourselves in is the homework battle or a battle to do something such as play video games or watch TV. In these situations, the goal is to complete that homework before giving them the preferred activity. This choice becomes the “First, Then” scenario. “First do your homework, then you can play video games,” or “first clean your room, then you may play with your friends.” This works out well for my boys because they get to do what they want, but I’m ensuring they complete what I want them to do first.
An important thing to remember about giving choices is always to make sure if you’re giving choices that you are good with either one they pick. If you are not and there is only one option, don’t give a choice.
Sometimes there is no choice. You will go to school, and you will go to bed. I often say, “this is not a choice,” or, “did I ask you? No, I told you.” But finding those moments where you can give them a choice will help during those times you can’t. Giving children some autonomy over their lives will help them better handle those times they don’t. They learn some things you have a choice on and others you do not.
Other things I allow them to control in their lives are picking out their own clothes. The big thing right now is trying not to match – I cringe every time I look at their clothes, but it’s not a battle I’m going to fight. I’m sure you’ve all heard “pick your battles.” Often on the weekends, we come up with a few activities we are willing to do, but then let the children choose which one we will do. Same with going out to dinner, giving them two different places we can go. Trust me, most of the time, it comes down to a vote, and guess who gets two (the parents!). This might be different if your kids outnumber you.
Just remember, life is all about choices. Your child needs to learn how to make choices, good and bad; preferred and not preferred.
This will help them learn the difference between behavior expectations (often a choice) versus obligations.