Category Archives: Discipline Toolbox

Offering Choices to Children

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Parents often talk about “offering choices” to children. It can be a very helpful technique for building cooperation with your kids, avoiding power struggles, and helping them learn decision-making skills. But, like all the tools in the discipline toolbox, it helps if you know some basic ideas about how to use a tool in order to get the best results.

What Choices are Available

It is the parent’s job to decide what options are available. Then the child chooses between those options.

On a busy morning when we’re in a hurry to get out of the house, it would be unfair of me to tell my son “pick anything you want to eat for breakfast.” Because if he chose waffles and we ran out yesterday, that’s a bummer. And if then he chose a fruit salad, I’d say “I don’t have time to make that.” If then he said mac and cheese, then I’d say no, and then we have a power struggle on our hands when I describe all the rational reasons these choices are not an option, and he’d say “but you said I could choose anything.”

It’s just setting us up for frustration on both sides. (Or I could just give in and say yes to anything he demanded, but then I’d be cranky and resentful and he’d learn he gets anything he wants if he complains enough.)

Instead, before I offer a choice, I need to decide what acceptable options are. I can’t expect a young child to remember what food we have in the freezer right now, to know how long it would take to prepare food and whether that would make us late to school, or any of those other details I’m taking into consideration. So… first, I think about these things, I think about what options are possible, and then when I say “what do you want for breakfast – cheerios, yogurt, or an apple and peanut butter?” I know that all of these things are possible and that I would be fine with him making any of those choices.

I control what options are on the table, he decides which one of those to choose.

If he then asked for waffles, I could say “sorry buddy, we’re out of waffles – you can choose….” and reiterate the reasonable options. If he said “can I have grapes and string cheese?” I’d say “hmm…. that wasn’t one of my options, so I have to think about that… it is a lot like the apple and peanut butter option, and I know we have those things, so yes, you could choose that.” (Notice, I let him make a choice that wasn’t in the options but I was still the one in control of deciding whether that option was available. I set the limits that would work for us both and gave him some insight into my decision-making.)

How Many Choices to Offer

Some parents make the mistake of offering too many options, which can be overwhelming for a little one. Too many overwhelming choices in one day will lead to meltdowns. A good rule of thumb for little ones is to offer just one decision at a time, and for that decision, offer as many options as the child is years old. A 2 year old chooses between the red shirt and the blue shirt. (And you just put a pair of pants on them without them having to also make that decision.) A 3 year old chooses between cereal, toast, or yogurt. (You decide what dish to use, and where they sit.) A 4 year old has four bedtime stories to choose between. (You decide that they’ll brush teeth before you read the story.)

With More Choices, Offer More Guidance

As the child gets older, you may offer more choices, but give them criteria you would use to help make a good decision. For example, an 8 year old can go to a full closet of options and choose all their clothes (pants, shirt, socks, underwear), but the parent might offer guidance. “I know yesterday was super warm and you wore shorts, but today will be much cooler, so you’ll probably want to choose long pants. And you may want to wear your flannel hoodie this morning till it warms up.” Or “I know you want to play with Legos today. The other two things you need to do before dinner are bring in the trash bins and do your homework. You can choose what order to do them in, but they all need to be done. I’d probably do the trash bins first because it’s quick and easy and you’ve still got your shoes and coat on.”

Talking through this decision-making process helps them build the skills to do this independently later on.

When To Offer Choices (and when not to)

Don’t offer choices to a child in the middle of a huge meltdown. At that point, they’re in their “downstairs brain” and not capable of having a rational discussion and making decisions. I was once in the mall parking lot, and a child was having a massive meltdown, and the mom kept saying “You can’t run in the parking lot. You have three choices – you can ride in your stroller or I can carry you or you can hold my hand while we walk.” This was a kid in full meltdown – he wasn’t processing anything she was saying, even though she said it over and over. It would have been better to say “it’s not safe for you to be here, so I need to carry you” and when the child starts to calm down, then offer the other options.

An even better approach was to offer the choices before the situation and long before the meltdown. While the child was still buckled in his car seat and calm, she could say “Remember in the parking lot, it’s not safe for you to run off. You have three choices….” (Or actually, I would have offered two choices – three is a lot at that age, even when the child is calm.

Don’t offer choices to bribe your child out of a tantrum. Imagine you’re in a store and your child asks you to buy an expensive toy, and you say no, and they meltdown, and then you say “OK, fine – you can have one of these cheap toys – do you want the dog or the monkey?” Your child has now learned an effective technique to bully you into getting them something. Instead, if you’re willing to buy a cheap toy, say that going in. “In the store, if you can behave well while I do my shopping, then I will let you choose one toy. But it has to be something little and it has to cost less than _____.” If you’re not willing, don’t offer. Say “We have to buy a birthday present for your friend today, but we’re not buying anything for you. But if you can behave well, and we can do this quickly, then we’ll be able to play in the playground for a little while when we’re done shopping.”

Again, you’re in control of what options are on the table. They choose between those options.

Let Them Make Bad Choices

Now, we obviously can’t control everything our kids do. And we wouldn’t want to. They need to have plenty of times where they’re making their own decisions (in environments that are reasonably safe for them to do this in.) And when given freedom, sometimes children do dumb things. They make bad choices. You gotta let them do that sometimes. You can’t protect them from all dumb things and from the consequences of all bad choices.

If you rescue them from the consequences, they never learn to make better choices. So, some times, you should let them suffer some consequences. I empathize, but I don’t immediately rescue. (But I do have a plan for how we’ll move out of this.)

For example, my child wanted to wear her slippers to play outdoors. I would say “it’s wet out there – your slippers aren’t waterproof. Your feet will get wet.” One day she begged and begged to wear the slippers to the park before story time. Her feet got wet. I said “I’m sorry, I know you hate wet feet.” But I didn’t fix it. We played in the park with wet feet and she hated it. When it came time for story time, I said “I brought shoes and dry socks along for story time – would you like to change into those now?” Her slippers were too wet to wear when we got back home, so she had to go without the, for a day. After that, she knew not to wear her slippers outside.

Learn more about natural consequences and about other tools in the discipline toolbox.

Your Discipline Toolbox

There are lots of different discipline techniques you can use to guide your children toward good behavior. Learning about them is like stocking your toolbox for home maintenance. If your house has a good solid foundation, and you perform regular, routine maintenance, then you may not need to pull out your toolbox very often. But we all have those little repair jobs to do from time to time that require a basic, all-purpose tool, and some days we have really big issues that we need to pull out specialized power tools to address, and sometimes we even need to call in a professional to help. This post will orient you to all the tools in your toolbox, and help you figure out how to use the right tool for the right job, in the right way.

[Note: This post is intended as an overview… there are LOTS of links in this post that will take you to other articles I’ve written with more details on these techniques.]

What is Discipline?

Discipline means guidance. It means good modeling, setting clear expectations for how we would like our children to behave, not assuming that they know how, and setting clear limits about things they cannot do. And, it means that when they misbehave, we let them know that the behavior was not OK, but we do still love them, and we will tell them how to be better in the future. This style of discipline not only guides behavior, it also builds trust and respect between parent and child.

Building a Strong Foundation

All discipline is grounded in a positive relationship. Here’s some ways to build that foundation:

  • Play together—often!
  • Have snuggle time and special time and let them know that you love them.
  • Talk and listen to them—build a “Love Map” of what’s important to them.
  • Validate their emotions—their feelings are always OK. (Some behaviors are not.)
  • Be consistent and trustworthy.
  • Ask for respect from them and treat them with respect.
  • Teach how to be good: talk about values; model, coach, and praise good behavior.

Do Routine Maintenance

  • Take care of yourself. Get the support you need in order to have enough energy to be a calm, thoughtful parent.
  • Whenever possible, ensure your child is well fed and well rested.
  • Avoid overstimulation (it leads to meltdowns).
  • Spend time in kid-friendly environments where it’s easy for them to succeed.
  • Set expectations: warn of transitions, and explain what the plans are.
  • Create predictable routines & clear rules so they know what’s expected of them. Set appropriate limits on behavior. (Be sure that your expectations are developmentally appropriate. Don’t ask more of them than they are capable of.)

To Improve Behavior

When there’s not really bad behavior, but there are places where if your child was behaving better, your family life would be smoother and happier, here’s how  to move things in a positive direction:

  • Use the Attention Principle: pay attention to positive behavior you want to see more of.
  • Use When / Then. “When you do [positive behavior], then you get [something positive.]”
  • Create a Reward System. (Read more about praise and reward here.)
  • Create a Routine to address any chronic challenge in daily family life.
  • Clarify rules—your child may do something that they didn’t realize was wrong. You can explain what the problem is and how to avoid it in the future.

For example, if you are often running late to school in the morning because your child is reading or playing instead of getting dressed, you could set up a routine by writing down what the steps are that they need to do, saying when you do these steps on time, then you can read your book, and giving them a reward at the end of the week if they’re on time every day.

To Correct Minor Misbehavior

(Note: If your child is hurting someone or something, skip to the next level.)

These tools are meant to correct problematic behavior. As parents, a big part of our job is to help our children learn to be good people, as this helps them succeed in school, work, and in all of life. To do that, we need to set clear limits on what’s OK and what’s not OK. (Learn here about the authoritative parenting style, which balances high expectations for our children with high responsiveness to them as individuals.)

For example, if you’re trying to get dinner ready and your toddler is banging their sippy cup to get your attention, you might just ignore that. Or you substitute by trading the cup for a drum. If their milk spills, then you can let them experience the natural consequences by having them wipe up the milk, then giving them a cup of water to replace it. Or you could say “if you keep banging your milk, then I will take it away, and you’ll get water with dinner later.”

To Correct Major Misbehavior

These are your power tools. You’re not going to pull them out of the toolbox every day, but they’re there when you need them.

You might use them any time your child is hurting someone or something or is at risk of being hurt. You might also use them for non-compliance – if you used the tools in the category above (telling your child what TO DO, given clear commands, etc.) and they continue to disobey, then these tools kick in.

  • Use Time Out from Positive Attention. This gives them (and you) an opportunity to calm down.
    • Note: If your child is in the midst of a meltdown, this is not a time to try to reason with them… they’re in their “downstairs brain”. (Learn more here.)
  • Impose a Logical Consequence—make sure the “punishment fits the crime.”
  • Seek peer advice, parent education, or professional support as needed.

You may notice that I haven’t talked about one discipline tool: Physical Discipline. Many parents have discovered that, in the short term, spanking can be an effective way to get a child to stop doing something bad. But, in the long term, it can damage the relationship, cause fear and anxiety in the child, and teach the child that anger and violence are the ways to get things done. It also doesn’t teach them much about why the behavior is bad – they may avoid doing it when you’re around so they won’t get hit, but there’s no reason for them to avoid it when you’re not there, so they don’t gain self discipline skills. Read more on physical punishment and spanking here.

Sometimes handling our child’s misbehavior can make us really angry. Look here for tips on “What if you’re angry at your child?“.

Move On

When misbehavior stops, or after a time out or a consequence is complete, then re-engage with your child, providing positive attention and praise for good behavior.

It’s especially important to do this if you got angry at your child. Read more about Resolution.

Self Discipline

Our goal for discipline, in the long-run, is to make ourselves obsolete. Our children need to learn to
discipline themselves. We want to raise adults who are capable of controlling their impulsive behavior, capable of working hard for a delayed reward (or even no reward other than their satisfaction with a job well done), and who have such a strong internal sense of right and wrong that it guides their every action, and who do what’s right simply because they can’t imagine behaving differently. Read more on self-discipline and how to begin to teach it.

Handout

If you’d like a free, printable handout that summarizes all this information, just click here for the Discipline Toolbox in color or Discipline Toolbox,  Black and White.