Why Giving Your Child Choices Helps with Discipline

It may sound contradictory: In order to get your child to follow through on your specific directions, you offer options for them to choose from. In some ways, yes, it gives your child more control over the situation. However, who decided that giving your child some control is a bad thing? While it’s true that you are in charge as the parent, being in charge does not mean controlling everything about your child’s behavior. Being in charge means keeping your children safe and healthy and thriving in all aspects of their lives – and when they become the adults, their safety, health and growth will be based on their ability to make good decisions.

Making good decisions doesn’t happen overnight – it involves a lifelong learning process. If kids are never given options or choices, they will not learn how to identify the good from the bad, or the related rewards or consequences for a particular choice – in short, they will be lacking the foundational problem-solving skills necessary for success as an adult. So how do you find a balance between staying in charge as the parent and giving your child choices? Start with these three tips:

Either-Or Choices – These are used to stop an inappropriate or unhealthy behavior, such as arguing, yelling, fighting or tantrums. Even though you are setting up a break from the behavior or a consequence, you can offer your child choices regarding how to go about following through on your instructions, so they are still allowed a sense of control over themselves and their actions. For example, if you are giving a time out: “I do not appreciate your behavior right now, please go to time out. You may choose whether your time out is at the kitchen table or the rug in the living room.”

Why is this important? Well, consider this scenario: Your boss tells you that your job is being changed from full-time to part-time status. She then tells you to go back to your desk and continue working, even though she can see that you are upset. How would you feel? What if, instead of telling you what to do, she offered you options and said, “I can see that you are upset. You may choose to go back to your desk to continue working, or you may take a few minutes for yourself outside.” Would you have a different reaction? In most cases, being given only one option increases your negative feelings, such as shifting from frustration to anger or disappointment to sadness; being given more options allows you a sense of control over your ability to calm down and regulate your emotions and behavior.

When-Then Choices – These are used to motivate a child to start a behavior, such as brushing their teeth, making their bed or doing homework. It is not the same as bribery, because it requires different language and logic. A bribe would be, “IF you do your homework, I’ll LET you stay up late to watch a movie.” A When-Then Choice would be, “AS SOON AS (or WHEN) you finish your homework, THEN you may play your video game for a half hour.” Bribery often has less structure, and involves the reward of a typically unacceptable behavior; a When-Then Choice makes the assumption that a child will do the behavior that is expected, and will then be able to engage in an acceptable behavior that they enjoy. In this way, you are NOT giving a choice about a behavior that does not offer an option (doing homework), and you ARE giving them a choice in regards to receiving something pleasant in return for doing something they find unpleasant. Be careful not to use language such as, “You may not play video games until you finish your homework,” as this sets a negative tone – try to keep it positive and rewarding.

Why is this important? Well, as adults, don’t we try to reward ourselves to stay motivated? How often have you thought to yourself, “When I get finished mowing the lawn, I’m going to lay in the hammock with a cold beer” or “As soon as I finish the laundry, I’m going to watch that episode of ‘American Idol.’” Kids need the same kind of incentive to work their way through unpleasant tasks.

Non-Battling-Empower Choices – Some things are just not all that important, such as whether your daughter wears her red overalls or green dress to school, or your son eats a PB&J or egg salad sandwich for lunch. However, you can use things such as these to your advantage, by giving your child practice in making choices, and showing them that you value their opinions. Though choosing for your child can be a time-saver, consider this: the times when they really DON’T have options, you can point out the difference to help them begin to identify and understand kid choices from parent choices – “This morning I let you choose whether to take your yellow bus backpack or red ladybug backpack to school, and you chose the red ladybug – that was great! This afternoon, I cannot offer you a choice, because we have to go to the conference at your school, and then to your tutoring session, so there will not be time for anything else.”

Why is this important? You need to let your child see that some things are non-negotiable, but you offer them options when possible, and trust and respect their decisions. This will empower them and build their sense of competence and confidence when it comes to making decisions and solving problems, and it will increase their sense of respect for you, and trust in your decision-making skills.


Next Week’s Blog: Defusing Power Struggles

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.