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The Informed Parent

Giving Toddlers Choice

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jun. 01, 2009

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.

  • Only offer choice between two items.
  • Only offer choices where either option is agreeable to you.
  • Only offer choice if there truly is one. For example, if it is cold enough that the child needs to wear a jacket instead of a sweater, don’t offer a choice between the two. This may seem obvious, yet many parents get caught in the trap of having to enforce their own wishes after a choice has been made. If this happens, don’t be hard on yourself. Remember, you are learning, too.
  • Recognize that very young children do not fully understand choice. Be prepared to go with the option not initially chosen. Some parents feel that this gives children too much power. It does not. You are assisting them in understanding preference. Think of choice at this stage as a teaching tool as opposed to something set in stone. This allows you to be more flexible and to avoid power struggles.
  • Only offer choice when you have time. This is not quick with toddlers. There are many times where you will make unilateral choices.
  • Label for the child. Choice making is a great time for building vocabulary and concepts. In the sweater example used above, each was labeled by color as well as garment name. The food example went a step farther than naming each vegetable. It incorporated labeling feelings and standards.
  • Acknowledge the choice. Say something like, “Thank you for making such a careful choice,” or “I like the choice you made.” Parents who acknowledge children in this way empower them for the next time.

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.

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