A Little Control Goes a Long Way: Why and How to Use Forced Choice With Your Child

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

In a previous post on time-out, I mentioned the technique of forced choice.  Reader feedback tells me that this topic is a good one to cover on its own.  So without further ado, here you go.

Why Use Forced Choice

First, let’s talk first about why it is important to give children choices.  Perhaps it’s easiest to start with someone you know very well: You.  Think about how it feels to have your power stripped from you, to feel that you have no say in a matter that’s important to you.  For children, most matters do feel pretty important.  And, let’s face it, kids get told many, many times a day what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.  While having a parent as a guide can feel quite comforting, having a parent with all of the control can feel pretty terrible and sometimes downright infuriating.

Kids need an opportunity to gain a sense of control by having a say, to make mistakes, and to learn from their decisions in a supportive context.  (Refer back to the natural consequences post for more on this.)  Giving choices allows for all three to occur.  It’s simply more empowering to be a decision-maker rather than a passive participant in your life.  Looking back at Diana Baumrind’s seminal 1960’s research on parenting styles, she and several others (e.g., Maccoby & Martin) since that time found that those that use an authoritative style had some pretty positive outcomes with their children.  In a nutshell, this style provides structure within a democracy.  That is, parents set the stage with rules, expectations, and guidance while allowing their children healthy decision-making opportunities.  And when their kids mess up, they are typically met with a supportive style rather than a punitive one so their kids can worry more about learning from mistakes than hiding them from their parents.  They can then apply this knowledge moving forward as they are presented with more opportunities for decision-making.

Contrast that with an authoritarian style where mom and dad are more like drill sergeants that dictate so much of their child’s existence that the child has difficulty building the capacity to make his own good choices.  And then there is the permissive parenting style where kids have so much freedom that they can easily tend toward being the kids that grown-ups refer to as out-of-control.  Finally, we have the neglecting/uninvolved parenting style that is as its name suggests and these kids typically struggle with a host of problems such as depression, aggression, and poor self-control.  And this brings me back to the authoritative parenting style and, more specifically, the technique of forced choice that falls under the umbrella of authoritative parenting.

So we talked about some of the benefits of forced choice already, such as helping kids feel empowered and safe to make and learn from mistakes.  An added bonus is that it can get parent and child unstuck during power struggles.  A tense situation can be easily defused when a parent can think of some good solutions to the problem at hand and then offer the child a choice of these solutions.  For example, let’s say that the morning is rushed and you’re afraid that you’ll be late for work and your child late for school.  You toss some clothes on your child’s bed and tell her to get dressed.  She yells that she doesn’t like that outfit.  You have the option of pressing on by telling the child to put on the clothes anyway OR you can take the opportunity to quickly say something like this: “Sometimes there are clothes that I don’t feel like wearing on some days, too.  Would you like to wear your flower dress or your frog outfit today?”  The five seconds that you spend giving your child a choice can easily save you five minutes of power struggling with her.

How to Use Forced Choice

While there are times when choices simply cannot be offered, as in circumstances where safety is truly at risk, there are many times during the day where an opportunity to make a choice can be easy to give.  Here are some guidelines for offering a forced choice:

1.)    For very young children (e.g., preschoolers and beginning elementary kids), it is typically easiest to offer two choices.  For older children and adolescents, more choices can be offered if you sense that your child can handle them.

2.)    Any choice offered needs to be one that you genuinely support.  For example, giving your child a choice to do homework now or in the morning when you know that doing it in the morning will likely cause a lot of stress on your child as well as you may not be a good idea.  Offering the choice of doing homework now or right after dinner may work better for all involved.

3.)    If a child is given the list of choices and refuses to make a decision, you can offer something like the following statement: “I have given you your choices, but you are not telling me which one you want.  I will give you one more minute to think about it and tell me.  If you don’t, then I’ll make the decision.”  Most frequently, this results in the child seizing control of the situation by making a choice.  If he doesn’t, then it’s important to follow through with what you said and make the decision for him.  True, you may get a tantrum out of the deal, but that’s better than your child learning that your word will not be kept.

4.)    Sometimes kids have great ideas for choices and deserve to be heard.  For example, you may give the option of wearing a coat to the store or putting it on the seat in the car.  The child may make the suggestion of putting the coat in his bag and putting it in the car.  Times like these warrant comments like this: “Wow!  I didn’t think of that one.  That sounds perfectly reasonable to me.  Let’s head out.”

5.)    As I mentioned in the time-out post, forced choice is perfectly acceptable to use during times of misbehavior.  For example, a tantrum at the grocery store can be met with the following: “You can continue to yell and we’ll go home now or you can use a calm voice while we’re in the store and we’ll keep shopping.”  Of course, you have to be willing to leave the store immediately if the tantrum continues.

6.)    When the child has made a decision from the choices available and things don’t work out very well, an opportunity for talking about the outcome has presented itself and should be taken.  For example, let’s say that you gave your child the option of taking a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his school lunch or taking yogurt.  He chose the yogurt but ended up hungry much earlier than usual.  A situation like this could be met with something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that you got so hungry at school.  I’m wondering if there is something else that you could choose for your lunch that would fill you up for longer.”  This statement is a whole lot different from “You were the one that chose the yogurt so those are the breaks.”  Remember, we want our kids to feel safe to come to us with their concerns as well as empowered to make good decisions for themselves.

As always, thanks for reading.  -Anita

This post is sponsored by The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Get your degree in psychology.

Sources:

Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior, Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.

Baumrind, D. (1967). Child Care Practices Anteceding Three Patterns of Preschool Behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75(1), 43-88.

Maccoby, E. E., & Martin, J. A. (1983). Socialization in the Context of the Family: Parent–child Interaction. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.) & E. M. Hetherington (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, Personality, and Social Development (4th ed., pp. 1-101). New York: Wiley.