How to Offer Children Choices Within Limits

by Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE

Choices End Power Struggles

Choices are the best tool for preventing and stopping power struggles and rebellion.

There are a few ways that parents can run into problems, however, so here are a few guidelines for using choices effectively.

Don't give a choice if there is no choice. "Do you want to take your medicine?" sounds like the child has a choice. Instead, say "You need to take this medicine.... Do you want chewable or liquid?" Or "...Do you want to take it before or after eating?" Or "...What drink to you want to 'chase' it down?"

You don't need to offer all of these choices. I'm giving several example so you can see that even in a situation where a child "has to" do something there is often some way the child can have some choice or control, which prevents power struggles.

Rule-of-thumb: If there is no choice IF something needs to happen, offer choices for HOW or WHEN it happens.

State your bottom line (the minimum standards that must occur, what is non-negotiable). Then offer choices within those limits. Your limits will usually relate to safety, health, rules, rights, things like that. Those are issues you can and need to control.

Allow the child to offer choices. "We can have meatloaf or fish for dinner, unless you have an idea for something nutritious and delicious." Remember to state your bottom line, unless there are truly unlimited choices. Don't be overly rigid about forcing children to pick one of your choices. Any choice that meets your bottom line is okay, because your goal is to reach a win/win solution.

Make the choices respectful to both parent and child. If we say "Either quit throwing the ball in the house or I'll take it away," we are making a threat, not offering a respectful, fair choice. An effective, mutually respectful choice would be, "You can either play with the ball outside or with another toy inside. You decide." Here, parents address their safety concerns and respect the child’s need or desire to play.

Troubleshooting Tips

  • If we say "Do you want milk or juice" and children say, "I want both," we can say, "Which one first?"

  • If children persist, we can say, "You can decide or I'll decide for you and you might not like what I decide."

  • If children don't like the choice they made, acknowledge their disappointment and remind them that they can choose another option next time.

  • If a child tends to change his/her mind, confirm the choice and your expectation that he/she sticks with it. For example, say "Okay, you chose cereal, right? Once I pour the milk on the cereal, I expect you to eat it."

Use Other Tools

One final note about choices: Some parents have so much success using choices within limits that they use it in every situation. They forget that in some situations another tool may be more appropriate. Don't overuse choices or feel you have to give children a choice about everything. Use them within reasonable limits.

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is a second-generation parent educator and president of Parent's Toolshop™ Consulting. She is the author of more than 100 resources for parents and family service professionals, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop, available at The Parent's Toolshop. Since 1980, Jody has trained parents and professionals through her dynamic presentations and served as internationally recognized parenting expert to the media worldwide. Get practical parenting resources, including more information about this topic on her website.

Copyright © Jody Pawel. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.