Giving (Reasonable) Choices

Giving (Reasonable) Choices

Here’s a tip that most parenting books and experts recommend, but which is often perverted, like anything, when not grounded in an ethical framework. The idea is to give children choices, which allows them to enjoy some autonomy. For example, when a child is avoiding bedtime, instead of making demands or punishing, we say “How many more minutes would you like?” or, if it’s time to eat, we ask, “What part of the meal would you like to start with, the soup or the sandwich?”

This can work really well, especially for children under six or so. It redirects their scattered attention to the personal choice at hand. They appreciate the options, and mulling them over occupies their focus. It’s a great way to avoid arguments. It’s also just plain nice, a pleasant way to treat anyone, helping them identify their options without making decisions for them.

But for older or more defiant children, the technique can be patronizing. If the child says, “I’m not hungry”, and you say, “Which part of the meal would you like to start with?”, it’s just a confusing way of dismissing their preferences. It’s disrespectful. It may look unrealistic as written here, but we regularly see this approach paired with thinly cloaked contempt or rage. “SOUP OR SANDWICH!? PICK ONE”, the irate parent sneers.

Some parents use this technique in an attempt to justify the initiation of force, forbidden by the NAP. They’ll say something like, “Would you like to walk yourself to the corner or do you want me to carry you?”, or even worse, ask the child to choose which implement they’re smacked with.  If the initiation of force is involved, and if all roads lead to something unpleasant for the child, it’s not really much of a choice. It’s a no-win situation for the child. It’s akin to a mugger asking “Your money or your life?”

Obviously the goal is to get the child to go to bed, or sit and eat, etc. But if you’re struggling with this one, ask yourself: Can the child say “neither”? Is he allowed to opt-out of your plan for him? And will your response to that be an escalation to the use of force?

We’re writing about this because it is such a useful tip, but also because it’s one of the most common ploys that we see aggressive parents using, perhaps just to save face in public. They heard that “giving choices works”, but fail the more important value test of decency, reasonableness, and following the NAP.

Please give your child choices often, and with their wishes in mind. And be prepared for a peaceful response, or plan B, when they say “neither”. But remember: merely giving a choice does not turn an unfair or aggressive action into something positive.

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