It’s no secret that toddlers have a mind of their own. While parents may not always know what their little ones want, they make very clear what they don’t want. Whether it’s food, clothing, or an activity, disgruntled toddlers can frustrate parents who are attempting to understand.
Pre-verbal toddlers and those just beginning to talk cannot easily let you know their desires. They smile when you have made a choice that they like. However, if it isn’t what they want, they push it away, throw it on the floor, cry, or begin to tantrum.
You can start offering toddlers choice at around 18 months. At this age they will not be able to clearly indicate their preference. Your intention is to teach that they have some say in their lives. When providing choice, do it between two items. For example, show your child a red sweater and a white one. Say, “Which sweater would you like to wear, the red sweater or the white sweater?” Point to each as you are labeling them. She may look at you quizzically, grab at one, or look from one to the other. If there is any indication of which sweater she wants, dress her in that one. If there isn’t, make the choice yourself.
By the time toddlers turn two they begin to understand the concept of choice. But until they are close to three, they do not understand the consequence of it. Let’s say you have offered the choice between carrots and peas for dinner. Your son indicates that he would like carrots. When you put them on his high chair tray, he looks at you accusingly and pushes them onto the floor. Say something like, “Oh, I thought you wanted carrots tonight. Let’s try some peas instead. And even if you are unhappy, food stays on the tray.” Put a few peas on the tray.
In an interaction like this, you are giving choice, indicating that it’s okay for him to change his mind, recognizing his feelings of unhappiness, and letting him know that it’s not okay to throw food onto the floor. It is done calmly and clearly.
A few guidelines need to be kept in mind when giving choice to toddlers.
Giving toddlers choice begins to give them control. All toddlers strive for independence. It is an important part of their development. When parents have the skills to help in the process, lots of frustration is avoided for both parent and child.
As with all effective parenting tools, offering choice requires practice on your part. Mistakes will be made. Pay attention, take them in stride, and know you will do better the next time. Enjoy watching your toddler develop.