As adults we know the importance of choices. Every challenge is an opportunity to make a decision. While it is true that some choices are harder to make, it is our ability to pick and move along the path that ultimately helps us at every crossroad in life.
However, this isn’t a skill for adults only.
Starting early and offering choices to children enables us to lay down a very healthy sense of self, responsibility and autonomy. It can be a helpful technique for avoiding power struggles, and helping them learn decision-making skills.
At the onset this can sound time consuming, daunting and even exhausting for parents. I don't blame you. And that is why I am about to specify the application of this very useful parenting tool in bringing up children.
Give choices instead of giving in! For most part, several choices in our lives are led by kids, from the schools they go to, their food choices, their playmates, and more. But there are also homes where the subjects for specialisation are picked, partners chosen and careers built by parental choices. While there are some decisions that have to be made by parents and, in fact, impart a sense of belonging and safety for kids, some require us to loosen up a bit to give our children the opportunity to explore, evaluate, and make those choices. And most importantly teach them to live with the consequences of those.
Choices give children a voice, make them process, learn to prioritise, and take ownership or responsibility for choices. They learn to cope with poor choices, and even better, find solutions to correct them.
Giving choices is not child's play. Thus we need to use the tool with preparation, information and caution.
What not to offer: Do not offer options that are not possible or not agreeable to you. if missing school is not an option, it goes into the non-negotiable category.
Similarly, state gently and clearly that skipping lunch, homework or family dinners are not available options. However, what you can have for lunch, when to complete your work and picking the restaurant or the menu for the family dinner can be discussed.
How many to offer: Please do not feel too guilty or generous about the number of choices you offer. Too many choices will defeat the purpose of this exercise and leave the kids confused and the parents exasperated. Stick to two, options to pick from or an indulgence of three. “Would you like a cheese sandwich or an egg sandwich?”, “Would you like to finish your homework in your room or the dining table?”, or “It is a family dinner night! Should we make cake or brownies for dessert?”
When not to offer: At times children need their parents or the adults around to help them pick. They bank on the confidence and ability of adults around to make choices and witnessing confusion, nervousness or agitation may make them feel insecure. Recognise the situations when children seem vulnerable, truly confused and ask for help or when they are unable to pick after a period of time.
Follow through or don't offer in the first place: Once picked, please do allow for the choice to be fulfilled. Thus be careful and don't offer park picnics when you are inundated with work or sleep overs if you will later say no. Make sure you evaluate options and offer choices, all of which are plausible.
There is a very apt quote by Dr Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes./ You can steer yourself any direction you choose./ You're on your own. And you know what you know./ And you are the guy who decides where to go.” Choices are known to have several advantages. It helps children become creative, responsible, solve problems and develop confidence.
Remember the mnemonic: giving choices over TEA!
T: Talk to children about possibilities. Support, inform, offer and communicate confidence.
E: Engage with them and explore the choices. Having presented the choices, stay tuned and watch them problem solve. It will give you food for conversation and guidance later.
A: Allow for mistakes. Be humorous, open-minded, flexible and calm if choices go wrong. Demonstration of a cool head, calm disposition, evaluation of further options and course correction is what we are hoping to teach our children as they grow up into healthy, happy and decision making adults.
Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.