Parenting Tips > Raise a Self-Disciplined Child

When Kids Won't Cooperate: Give choices

Giving choices may be the single most useful tool parents have for managing life with young children.  It really is almost a magic wand, at least until children are about five.

"The doctor says you have to have a shot. Do you want it in the right arm or left arm?"

"Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes? Five minutes? Ok, do we have an agreement that in five minutes you'll go to bed no matter what?"

Why does this little trick work so effectively? Because it's a win-win solution. You're offering only choices that are okay with you, so you're happy. She gets to pick one that's okay with her, so she's happy. You sidestep the power struggle, because you aren't making her do something; she is choosing. The child is in charge, within your parameters. No one likes to be forced to do something. Here, because she chooses, she cooperates.

So how do you use this magic wand?

  1. Give limited choices. Make them as palatable as possible to the child, but eliminate any options that are unacceptable to you.
  2. For young children or any child who is easily overwhelmed, an either/or choice works best. "We have to leave now. Do you want to put on your shoes yourself or do you want me to put them on for you?"
  3. As children get older, choices can get more complicated. "You can quit soccer if you want, but what sport or physical activity do you think you'd like to try? You need to choose one physical activity."
  4. Choices can be used to help kids learn to manage themselves. "As soon as your homework is done, I'll help you carve that pumpkin. Your choice, but I know you want to start on the pumpkin as soon as we can." He has the choice to procrastinate on his homework, but you're helping him motivate himself to tackle it now.
  5. Choices can teach children consequences. "You know your piano recital is coming up. Extra practice will help you feel more confident, but that's your choice." Don't offer choices you can't live with, of course. If you aren't willing to let her make a fool of herself at the recital, you may need to help her structure her practice effectively.
  6. Remember that empathy doubles the effectiveness of giving choices. Empathy helps the child feel understood, so he's less upset, and less resistant. That means he's more likely to actually be able to make a choice and move on.

You might think of giving choices as Parenting Aikido. Instead of meeting your child's resistance with force -- which creates a power struggle, and, ultimately, a more resistant child -- you affirm his right to some control, but within the bounds you set. The result: A happier, more cooperative child, who knows you're on his side.