Should You Give Toddlers Choices?

Posted by on Sep 9, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments

On of the first big questions of parenthood is, should you give toddlers choices?  The answer to that question is yes and no.  What do I mean by that?  Well read on, because the answer is two fold and it getting it right is extremely important to both your peace and that of your toddler.  Firstly, if you’re a parent I’m sure you’ve been on the wrong end of your child’s tantrum.  

However, many tantrums are created unnecessarily

All toddlers are going to have some tantrums and every time I see a poor mom or dad struggle with a writhing, screaming bundle of toddler, particularly in some public place, I really feel for them.  All the stares and the disapproving glances.  Who needs that? However, I’m here to tell you that those very same tantrums are often precipitated by approaching the concept of choice in the wrong way.

Let me explain, every time I look on the web, I’m struck with just how many experts are telling parents that the key to stopping tantrums in toddlers, is to offer more choice.  That unfortunately is a problem, because choice will create more tantrums in toddlers, not less.  As a result, that’s likely to make the lives of parents far more difficult than they actually need be, creating a ton of very confused and very exhausted moms and dads.  It’s something I make sure to teach parents as part of my behaviour intervention service , because it plays a huge part in how toddlers behave.  

You need to get the idea of choice right

You see, I think a lot of people have misconceptions about choice.  They see a toddler as someone who as they grow, is reaching for a certain degree of independence.  That’s true, they are.  But then they get lost because they assume that just as the toddler begins to reach out for this minor degree of self determination, that they can actually handle what it is they’re asking for.  That’s when my personal ‘oops’ bell goes off and that’s because choice, is a learned concept and toddlers just aren’t developmentally ready yet to understand all the facets that are connected with it.

So what facets am I talking about?  Well, you see choice naturally involves the concept of loss.   If I’m going to buy a car, I have to decide which one I’m going to buy.  Perhaps the final list has come down to a Honda or a Subaru, but I’ve only got enough money for one and I certainly can’t have both.  So I have to choose one over the other.  It’s that loss that a child must fully understand before they can properly exercise choice.

The concept of choice is a learned skill

Go back in your mind to when you were a teenager and desperately wanted the freedom a car provided.  You begged and pleaded for mom or dad to hand you the keys and teach you.  Whether your dad or mom finally acquiesced, or you were taught by a third party, someone, with a whole lot of provisos, eventually gave you the keys.  But they didn’t just hand you the keys and then go indoors and read the paper, or check their email.  They spent the time with you, explaining how the car worked and taking you on many learning trips.  Trips where you spluttered and jerked your way across mostly empty parking lots, frightening little old ladies who thought it would finally be a quiet time to shop.

Only when you had truly learned how the car worked and could demonstrate competence, where you allowed to drive on your own.  By that time, you could fully cope with the responsibilities asked of you.

Don’t offer choice too soon

Now let’s now go back to our toddler and look at choice from their perspective.  The biggest mistake parents make is offering too much choice too soon.  You see toddlers simply can’t handle the loss component of choice.  They want both things and usually right now, so they don’t understand that having to choose, means that they can have one thing, but not the other.

The kind of choice a two year old can handle is to offer them two things, but not take either one of them away.  That allows them to play with the idea of choice, but doesn’t threaten them with a concept they can’t yet grasp.  They can change their mind 286 times if they please, with nobody taking the other option away.  That means they can practice making a simple ‘choice’ over and over again, long after every adult around them has died of boredom.

If you offer too much choice, you’ll get tantrums

Offer choices to your toddler and instead of garnering the beaming face of a little guy or girl that’s finally achieved some degree of self determination, what you’ll more likely get, is a bunch of failing arms and feet and a noise that’s somewhere between the screaming fans at a rock concert and a supersonic jet taking off.  A noise guaranteed to make you deaf in middle age, which is probably a sanity saver when it comes to your teenager’s choice of music.

Toddlers faced with choices they can’t handle will feel overwhelmed and they will show that rising discomfort through their behaviour.  No, they won’t sit down with you and discuss the problem in a rational way.  That’s why they’re toddlers.  They’ll hit, bite, kick and scream.

Watch your language

Take the overwhelming pressure off their little shoulders and just tell them we’re going here and we’re doing that, while looking cheery and confident along the way and the chances are, they will be as happy as little clams.   Make the mistake of thinking their tantrum is a drive for independence and start backing off and you miss what your child is trying to tell you.  What’s that?  That they are overwhelmed and want you to decide.   In other words, they want you to lead, so they can relax and be a kid.  That’s what you have to keep in mind when you ask should you give toddlers choices.  For more parenting help, please access my parenting services page.

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