By Melissa Ford
Offering choices to children has become a popular parenting approach. For example, you provide your son with the choice between an apple or a banana at snack time. After dinner you offer your daughter the choice of doing her homework at the kitchen table or in the dining room. It's bedtime; do you want to read the book or do you want me to read it?
Providing choices is key to promoting autonomy, competence, giving kids a sense of control, teaching decision-making skills, enhancing children's well-being, and encouraging responsibility. Choices are an important way to guide and support our children.
Yet it's equally important to know choices are optional.
When I was growing up, the authoritarian parent was the acceptable child-rearing style. Parents were the dictators and the disciplinarians. They told you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it; you had a limited voice in matters. For the most part, offering choices to children was considered ineffective parenting because it diminished a parent's authority.
Fast-forward to my parenting days. Early on I made the decision that choices would be offered to my children. My kids would not experience the anger and powerlessness of being dictated to. But I ran into a problem: sometimes my children would make choices I preferred they hadn't.
Imagine getting ready to go out for dinner and your child has a meltdown. You calmly state, "You have a choice. You can either pull yourself together or Daddy will have dinner without us and we'll stay home." I had the child who chose to stay home as my husband happily dined by himself. Or you inform your child that he has a choice to do homework now or forgo video games. My kid would hand me the controller and in a nonchalant manner say, "That's okay; I really don't care whether or not I play."
Unbeknownst to me, I had swung the parental pendulum from authoritarian to indulgent by offering too many choices.
Offering too many choices put the power into my children's hands to decide my fate (and theirs), yet denying choices was about control and obedience. Was there a middle ground? Taking a closer look at my own childhood, I realized it wasn't the lack of a choices that I found problematic; it was the implied messages behind the authoritarian attitude: "You will do what I say because I'm the parent and you are the child. I have the power and you don't. And, if you refuse to do as I say, be afraid."
I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.
By believing that a good parent only offered choices and a bad parent denied options, I had become ineffective. There were definitely times I needed to set boundaries and establish clear expectations such as, "Homework is your job. It's time to sit down and work." Or "Everyone is going to the family party. Be ready in an hour." Yet I could replace the authoritarian attitude with one of loving kindness so my implied messages could be heard loud and clear: "I am the parent and you are the child, and these are my expectations because I love you and want the best for you."
Good parents offer more than choices; they provide expectations and standards sent with powerful messages of love.