How to Offer Real Choice...Even When There Isn't One.

Today I'm sharing the secret of educators and parents everywhere. It's the art of offering choice, real choice.

Choice is essential to developing independence, avoiding power struggles, building self-confidence, and autonomy.  But it's more than merely offering the power to choose; real choice involves creating a situation where choosing is actually possible.  It's finding that balance between too many and too few options, and allowing your child to accept the consequences of their choice, good or bad.

Here's how it's done.

How to Offer Real Choice

The Limited Choice

I love the idea of Wegmans. They have delicious food, lots of special things I can't get anywhere else, and I can cross almost everything off my list at once. But, every time I shop there, I feel sick to my stomach and walk out with a headache, exhausted. It's decision fatigue-- I spend all my energy deciding, weighing my options, comparing prices, trying to get the best kind of pasta sauce, the yogurt that is most healthy, and if I really do want those chocolate chip cookies (umm, yes.).

Our children will reach decision fatigue much faster than we do. It's not possible for children make a thoughtful decision with choices. Too many options is uncomfortable, paralyzing, and unfair to their developing mind. In offering choices to young children, we must keep them clear, short, and limited. I suggest two options for most children, three at the most.

These can't just be any two options, a real choice allows your child to actually decide what's happening next, and you will be happy with either outcome.


What's a Real Choice?

Real choices are not things like “Would you hold my hand in this crowd?” or “Can you get ready for bed now?”. You can't honor a “no” with these questions.  Before you offer a choice, consider the answers. Are they reasonable, safe, and acceptable for the space? If not, you need to re-word your question. Try offering these choices instead:

brushing teeth

When something happens:

Would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bath?


Who does the action:

You can put your shoes on yourself, or I can help you. Which would you like?

Toileting design

Where events take place:

Shall we change your diaper here, or in the bathroom today?

The Power to Choose

You child must own the choice, and have full autonomy in deciding. If you later override their decision, or “save” them from the results of the choice, you are undermining the whole process. A well-crafted choice also allows for reasonable consequences to occur which your child could handle. For example, choosing not to go to bed on time will result in unfair consequences for a young child, and so it's not a real choice. However, choosing to continue playing and not leaving enough time for a story before bed , while unpleasant, is quite reasonable, appropriate, and manageable.

Ready to take your Parenting Skills to the next level? Learn how to offer help, ask the right questions, and inspire creativity in our course How to Raise a Human.


About the Author:

Leanne Gray, M.Ed has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. 

She's on a mission to raise a generation of kind, confident, responsible children, and does this through her work with families and schools.   Read more here.