I remember stopping at a bakery with my son when he was a toddler. Looking down at his blond curly hair I had a flash of realisation about how powerless he was and how dependent on me.
I understood I needed to carefully hold the responsibility I had towards him. To listen carefully to his opinions and feelings while taking care of the choices he was not yet ready to make.
Since that moment I have regarded parenting as a gradual handing over of responsibility to our children.
How much choice?
Too much choice can be a burden for children. I once overheard a parent ask their three year old “what would you like to do today?”. This is a tough question for some adults to answer, it involves a lot of cognitive skill to survey all of the available options, weigh up their merits and drawbacks and make a decision! It is also important to only give choices you can agree to, if you ask “what would you like to do today” and the answer is “go to the beach” when you only have the energy to go to the local park you might end up compromising your own needs.
A better option would be to give them two options to choose between, which you have the capacity to facilitate:
- Would you like cereal or toast for breakfast?
- Would you like to play in the sand pit or on the swings?
- Would you like to wear the green top or the red one?
Simple choices are more manageable for young children while still giving them a sense of agency and practice at making decisions.
As they get older the complexity of the choices can increase. We might also need to support them to understand that choosing something over something else involves the loss of the other opportunity. The word decision comes from the word incision – cutting. The thing which is not chosen is cut away. Supporting your child to feel the sadness which comes up around these small losses is a valuable life skill.
Many adults struggle to make decisions because they haven’t learned to accept that making a choice involves loss and risk: The quantity of these varies depending on the scale of the decision eg. choosing an ice cream versus choosing which house to buy. Processing the painful feelings can help us to embrace and commit to the choices we make and accept that there is no perfect decision.
Choice in challenging moments
I find choice can be an effective way of getting my son to help with chores – would you rather wash the dishes or take out the recycling? A little bit of agency helps to get him on board.
Choices can help with other flashpoints too.
Some parents think they need to keep their child at the table until everyone is finished eating or sit still to listen to a story. This might be too difficult for some children and result in a battle because the child simply can’t comply. These are good times to give children choices:
“You may sit quietly and sit at the table or go choose a book to look or do a puzzle.”
This means that you get to keep your boundary of quiet time while giving your child a sense of agency by offering them an option which feels manageable to them. Remember that all behaviour is communication. Children often behave better when they are given choices. What we regard as bad behaviour might be a child’s attempt to communicate that something doesn’t feel ok to them.
A choice isn’t a threat
It should be an alternative which is not punitive or painful for the child. If we use threats the children will behave out of a sense of fear. Over time this is likely to damage the relationship you have with your child and reduce their sense of agency. Giving a child positive or neutral choices helps them to become more self responsible. As they get older it is likely that this approach will help them to come up with their own positive alternatives. For example:
I am finding it hard to sit at the table, do you mind if I go and do a puzzle. I have written another article on parenting towards collaboration which you can read here.
Agency and environment
The environment we create for our children can support a sense of agency. Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy carefully curate environments which provide children with a sense of freedom. Within the classrooms there are little jars of shells and other objects to spark the interest of small children as well as art materials, natural objects, things to experiment and build with – there is usually a garden that the children can easily access.
Children in the modern world are often deprived of agency, they spend increasing amounts of time in controlled environments such as classrooms or clubs. Humans have evolved to learn through observation and play. Set up an environment at home which allows them to explore or spend time in the woods or in the park where they can play without adults intervening. These are brilliant ways for children to feel free and learn how to navigate risk and negotiate.
I hope this article was helpful. Please get in touch if you have any questions or would like support via firstname.lastname@example.org.