181: Why ‘giving choices’ doesn’t work – and what to do instead

‘Giving choices’ is a hot tool in the respectful parenting world.  In the scripts, it usually goes like this:


     Child: “I want a snack!”

     Parent: “OK!  Would you like an apple or a banana?”

     Child: “A banana, please!”

     And the parent hands over the banana.


But when you actually try it in your own home, it usually looks more like this:


     Your child: “I want a snack!”

     You: “OK! Would you like an apple or a banana?”

     Your child: “I want cookies!”


WHY IS THAT?!  Why does it never ‘work’ the way it’s supposed to?  Why doesn’t our child follow the script?


There’s a simple and easy reason, and in this episode I break it down – and teach you the effective tool to use instead of giving choices.


Jump to highlights:

(00:54) Many parenting coaches recommend giving children choices as a way to get them to


(02:43) The effectiveness of using choices to our children

(05:47) Reasons why giving choices makes us lose the possibility of meeting both of our needs

(08:01) How using choices motivates children to do the things they wouldn’t want to do

(09:00) Why choices teach children consequences

(09:40) Benefits of using true empathy

(10:26) Giving choices to negotiate how children will do a chore/task

(11:55) The use of rewards to motivate children fails to consider both the child’s and parent’s needs,

leading to resentment and missed opportunity for making real choices

(13:28) Giving choices as a win-win situation

(14:05) The choices parents give often do not meet the child’s needs

(17:08) Distinguishing between needs and strategies

(19:01) The importance of meeting both our and our children’s needs

(20:34) Ben shares his struggles before joining the Setting Limits workshop

(22:55) Ben shares how effective the tools he learned in the Setting Limits workshop

(26:29) Deon shares her experience after joining the Setting Limits workshop

(27:01) An open invitation to join the Setting Loving (&Effective!) Limits workshop


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Other episodes referenced in this episode

086: Playing to Win: How does playing sports impact children? https://yourparentingmojo.com/sports/


170: How to stop procrastinating with Dr. Fuschia Sirois. https://yourparentingmojo.com/procrastination


075: Should we go ahead and heap rewards on our kid? https://yourparentingmojo.com/captivate-podcast/rewards/




Hi, This is Kelly Peterson from Chicago, Illinois. There's no other resource out there quite like Your Parenting Mojo, which doesn't just tell you about the latest scientific research on parenting and child development, but puts it into context for you as well so you can decide whether and how to use this new information. If you'd like to get new episodes in your inbox along with a free infographic on 13 Reasons Your Child Isn't Listening To You - And What To Do About Each One, sign up at YourParentingMojo.com/subscribe. If you'd like to start a conversation with someone about this episode, or you know someone who would find it useful, please do forward it to them. Thank you so much.


Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. It seems like almost every respectful parenting coach tells parents that one of the big secrets to getting your child to cooperate with you is to give them choices. Not too many choices - ideally, just two, and you should make sure in advance that both of those choices are acceptable to you. And when you do it, your child will magically want to comply with you.


So here's how it usually goes in the scripts:

The child says: "I want a snack!"

The parent says: "Okay, would you like an apple or a banana?"

And the child says: "A banana please!"

And the parent hands over the banana.


I've actually seen this interaction in a video demonstration of how to use choices to get your child to cooperate. And if you want to increase their language skills as well, you should add: "You chose a BANANA! Here it is!" as you hand it over.


So now let's take this interaction out of the demo video and into your home.

Your child says: "I want to snack."

And you say: "Okay, would you like an apple or banana?"

And your child says: "I want cookies!"


How come the children in the scenarios never respond like this? How come the scenarios never address what you're supposed to do when your child says this, since our children pretty rarely respond to accept one of the choices we give them? And why does this happen?


Well, let's break down how we're told to use choices. I'm going to use an example from a parenting coach I'm not going to name because otherwise I mostly respect their work. I'm sure you could check the article down if you put your mind to it - It's pretty short, so I'm actually going to read it to you.


At the top of the article there's a caption of an adult and a child high-fiving, which is captioned: "Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes? Five minutes? Okay, do we have an agreement that in five minutes you'll go to bed no matter what?" And we aren't told what the child's response is, but I suppose we're to assume the child says "Yes, certainly."


Okay, so now moving into the article, why does giving choices work so effectively? Because it's a win-win solution. You're offering only choices that are okay with you, so you're happy. She gets to pick one that's okay with her, so she's happy. You sidestep the power struggle, because you aren't making her do something; she is choosing. The child is in charge, within your parameters. No one likes to be forced to do something. Here, because she chooses, she cooperates.


So how do you use this magic wand?

1. You have limited choices.

Make them as palatable as possible to the child, but eliminate any options that are unacceptable to you.

2. For young children or any child who is easily overwhelmed, an either/or choice works best. "We have to leave now. Do you want to put on your shoes yourself or do you want me to put them on for you?"

3. As children get older (and this is point number 3) choices get more complicated.

"You can quit soccer if you want, but what sport or physical activity do you think you'd like to try? You need to choose one physical activity."

4. Choices can be used to help kids learn to manage themselves.

"As soon as your homework is done, I'll help you carve that pumpkin. Your choice, but I know you want to start on the pumpkin as soon as we can." He has the choice to procrastinate on his homework, but you're helping him motivate himself to tackle it now.

5. Choices can teach children consequences.

"You know your piano recital is coming up. Extra practice will help you feel more confident, but that's your choice." Don't offer choices you can't live with, of course. If you aren't willing to let her make a fool of herself at the recital, you may need to help her structure her practice effectively.

6. Remember that empathy doubles the effectiveness of giving choices.

Empathy helps the child feel understood, so he's less upset and less resistant. That means he's more likely to actually be able to make a choice and move on.


You might think of giving choices as Parenting Aikido. Instead of meeting your child's resistance with force – which creates a power struggle, and, ultimately a more resistant child – you affirm his right to some control, but within the bounds you set. The result: A happier, more cooperative child, who knows you're on his side. And who gets good at making healthy choices!


Okay, so let's break this article down. A key moment comes right in step 1 where we're only giving limited choices. We're making sure all of these choices are acceptable to us, but we aren't addressing whether all - or even any - of the choices are acceptable to the child. I can't over-emphasize the implications of this. When we're saying that the solutions we're offering are acceptable to us, we're saying that they meet our needs. The approach of giving choices makes no such assumptions of children -- it really assumes they are NOT people with needs of their own, and thus, they will be amenable to whatever choices meet OUR needs, as long as these are remotely "palatable." Then we double down on this in Step 2, where we make sure to offer only two choices too young or easily overwhelmed children. In SOME circumstances, this might be our best approach but if we haven't first taken the time to understand whether ANY of the choices we're offering are acceptable to the child, reducing the options doesn't really help.


Moving on to point 3, choices DO get more complicated as children get older - but once again, in this example we're asserting our needs over the child's. We're telling them "You need to choose one physical activity," which is a really loaded statement. We might think that the parent's need here is to protect the child's health and wellness, and that may legitimately be it. But if you think waaay back to Episode 68 on Dr. Hilary Levy Friedman's book Playing to Win, we learned that sports doesn't just benefit children's health now. It also helps them to develop the ability to be a team player, can help them to get into a good college, possibly with a scholarship, signals characteristics about themselves to potential future employers. I vividly remember an anecdote in the book about a woman who explicitly said she hired an employee who had played on an ice hockey team because she thought it communicated a lot about how scrappy and persistent the candidate would be. So all of those ideas about resource scarcity and getting our children ahead in a dog-eat-dog world is the subtext of this fictitious parent's requirement that the child chooses a physical activity to do after school. If the child picked yoga, is there a physical activity, would the parent be happy? My guess is probably not.


So a parent who is insisting on one physical activity can start by doing a lot of self reflection to understand: why am I insisting on this? What am I afraid will happen if I don't exert this degree of control over my child? In this scenario, my guess would be that the parent is afraid of not being the best possible parent, and of not giving their child the best possible start in life, and taking one physical activity is a really important part of that. But assuming that is a path we want to take, and I would question whether it is, there are so many other ways of meeting those needs? What if the child was to do some sort of extracurricular activity that involves teamwork, like debate club, or working for the school newspaper, or a book club? What if they wanted to do a physical activity involving something they enjoyed, like going for walks with you, or hiking, or gardening? When we reduce these potential options down to "You need to choose one physical activity," we lose the possibility of meeting both of our needs.


Now we move on to using choices to motivate children to do things they otherwise wouldn't want to do. In this example, the child has the "choice" to do their homework now and start carving the pumpkin sooner, or to "procrastinate on" the homework and then they'll have to wait longer to carve the pumpkin. If you think much less far back to Episode 170, we learned that procrastination is not really about making a conscious choice or being lazy or anything else that we think of when we're thinking about procrastination. People who procrastinate do it as a self-regulatory strategy, to avoid feeling difficult emotions they think they'll feel when they do the activity, or because they think they'll feel more equipped to deal with the challenge tomorrow than they do today. When we use 'choices' to override our self-regulation capabilities, we aren't equipping our children with skills they'll need in the future; we're ignoring the very real challenges they're having right now. We're saying: I don't care why you're having a hard time with your homework; when you get it done. I'll reward you with my time and attention.


Now on to the fifth point, about choices teaching children consequences, with the assumption that more practice will "make the child feel more confident." Perhaps it will, or perhaps the child already feels confident, perhaps they are feeling worried about the recital and practicing reminds them of that worry, and they aren't feeling worried because they haven't practiced enough, but because they've never performed in front of an audience before, or because their performance clothes are really uncomfortable, or because they're feeling afraid that if they don't do well enough in your eyes, that you'll withdraw your love and approval. Once again, we miss all of that when we don't bother to try to understand why the child is choosing not to practice.


Then finally we're to use empathy, because it "helps the child to feel understood." ONE of the benefits of empathy is the person receiving the empathy feels understood. The other benefit of true empathy is that we understand the other person better. But we aren't really trying to do that here. It's sort of like we're offering the words to convey empathy with the goal of reducing the child's upset so they stop resisting. So we're essentially saying something like: "I can see that you're feeling sad. That must be really hard. Do you feel better now? Now what physical activity would you like to choose?" This is really manipulative, and if another adult did that to me, I would feel completely disconnected, and no more likely to make a choice that they wanted me to make than I was before.


Here's another example from another parenting coach: "There is an art to giving children and adolescents choices. As parents, we want to give our children the choice of how they do a task or chore, but not in the completion of the task or chore. The completion of the task is going to happen. This is never up for negotiation. What the parent and child can negotiate is how and possibly when the completion of the task happens. By giving children and adolescents ownership in the completion of tasks, they are able to gain a sense of responsibility, ownership, and independence. An example is the trash needs to be taken out. The parent says to the child, "The trash needs to be taken out. Do you want to do it now or when your show is over? Which do you choose?' Of course, the child will choose when the show is over. When the show is over, the parent can say, "Remember, you chose to take out the trash when the show was over. I appreciate you taking responsibility for the choice you made. Thanks."


So this one takes me back to our conversation with Alfie Kohn in Episode 75, where we looked at an article in Slate Magazine where the writer had been using rewards with her child and had looked at the research, and found that overall it doesn't seem to harm children to use rewards. Given that Mr. Kohn has built a career arguing against rewards, we started from the premise: What if the Slate article is right? What if we can use rewards judiciously to motivate our child in the short term, and then withdraw their rewards in the long term?


One of the most important ideas coming out of that episode was that when we reward our child to motivate them to do something they don't want to do, we never question that there might be something unreasonable about our request. And this second parenting coach makes the same assumption - the parent has decided the action that's going to happen, and they sneakily use the word "need" to indicate this, as if the trash is sitting there saying, "I need to be taken out!", when actually the trash has no such thoughts. It's the PARENT who has failed to understand their own needs, which we can hypothesize are for ease and collaboration and rest, and who has latched into the strategy of having the child take out the trash as being the only acceptable strategy that will meet the parent's needs. We really don't have any idea what the child's needs are beyond their need for whatever enjoyment they're getting out of watching their show - we don't know if they have needs for rest or movement or ease or comfort or any number of other things. Maybe they CAN meet their needs by taking out the trash... or maybe they would be quite willing to help us meet our needs for ease and collaboration and rest by folding laundry, or helping to make dinner, or by clearing away their toys. When we focus on the single strategy we've decided is the right one, we miss the opportunity for either of us to make REAL choices. All we've done is preserve the illusion that we have control over our child, and created some resentment in our child as well, because they see the power-over move we're pulling and they hate it, just like we used to hate it when our parents did it to us as well.


Here's another example: a children's testing and evaluation center whose name implies that your child is going to get perfect grades after you work with them says: "Giving children choices hands some control to the child without compromising the adult's authority - a win/win situation. Implicit in the choice is the fact that the child needs to fulfill the task, but gets to choose how it will be accomplished. Giving choices diffuses conflict and lets children assert their independence in a healthy way. It exercises their brains by making them think and solve problems. It is an extremely effective technique to use with independent, defiant children and toddlers."


Because this is what we're really going for when we're using choices as a parenting technique. We're trying to let our child feel as though they have just a little control so they stopped fighting us, but not so much that we would compromise our authority over the child. We're trying to give them the sense of being in control, without actually having autonomy over anything that the child would consider to be important. So back to our very first example - the child can choose between an apple and a banana, which is not a choice the child wants to make. And THAT is why no child ever pushes back in the scripts of giving choices, and why your child ALWAYS pushes back when you give them a choice in real life. One VERY well-known respectful parenting coach, who was responding to a question about a child's misbehavior where the parent said: "I will give him two acceptable options in a situation and he will choose a third (unacceptable) option" told the parent, "He is demonstrating very clearly that he is not in a state of mind to make reasonable choices. Instead, he needs help in following your direction, whatever that is. Do it right away and well before getting angry or frustrated."


Yes, in that moment, the child is clearly struggling. But if we presented him with two options, neither of which he found acceptable, that's on US, that's not on our child. That means we haven't understood the child's needs, which is why they're pushing back. And why do we find this so frustrating? Because we were once toddlers, too, and we pushed back when our parents tried to get us to do things that didn't meet our needs, and they squashed us. They told us either verbally or non-verbally, that they didn't care about our needs. They might even have told us they were giving us choices, if they were especially enlightened parents for their day. The only thing that mattered was that we get with the program, and do what they told us to do. And as Jack Nicholson once said, "deep down in places we don't talk about at parties," that profoundly hurt us. THAT was how we learn to squash our needs so that many of the parents I work with have absolutely no idea they even have needs, nevermind how to understand what they are or how to go about meeting them. We were punished so often for saying 'no' that when our children say 'No, neither of those choices work for me,' some place deep in our brain that is so far back we can't even remember it happening says: "I used to say that. And I was punished because my parent wanted to be in control. And now my child is saying no. And I have to punish my child so they know I'm in control. But wait, I don't want to punish my child, but it's too scary to not be in control. What on earth can I do? I can give them choices. And then maybe they will think they're in control but I will still really be in control, and I won't have punished them either, which will be better. So we give them a choice between two options. They're both acceptable to us, and neither of which meets the child's needs. And they say "no," and we have no idea what to do with that. We have no model for where to go with that, which is why these struggles seem impossible to navigate.


So where do we go with that? Well, we work to understand our needs, and our child's needs. Let's start with us first. We have to make sure that we're distinguishing between needs and strategies. So a strategy is a thing that we or our child will do, like taking out the trash, folding the laundry, doing a physical activity, eating a banana. When we mistake strategies for needs, we get hopelessly messed up, because we will latch on to one strategy (you will take out the trash), and our child latches on to another (I won't take out the trash), and we're in a stalemate. So when you ask your child to take out the trash, your need is not to have the trash taken out, it's for the ease and collaboration and rest that we mentioned earlier. When we can see that need, we can say to our child: "Hey, I've noticed I'm not feeling like we're on the same team lately. Have you noticed it too? I feeling really sad about that. And how about you? (And we're leaving some space for a child to say anything that they might want to about their feelings, or we could hypothesize about them if we need to: "I'm wondering if you're feeling frustrated because I asked you to take out the trash when you didn't want to do it something like that?"). I'm also feeling really tired because I'm working a lot, and I would like to rest a bit more and to feel like everything's just a bit easier. And I'm trying to think about what your needs might be, and I'm wondering if you might have needs for more fun and play and joy? And maybe if I could help you meet your needs, would you be willing to help me meet some more of mine? I know I asked you to take out the trash early today, and I'm thinking about why you might have said 'no,' and I'm wondering if it was because it was raining and you didn't want to get wet, and the trash is stinky. I don't find it as difficult to put on a rain jacket as you do, and I don't mind the stink that much, so I would be willing to take out the trash. I wonder if you might be willing to help me out so I have some more time to rest? I have some ideas for things you could do, but I'm really open to considering anything you can think of.


So if we're newer to doing this, or if our child is on the younger side, maybe not even verbal, we're going to do a lot more of this sort of 'dialogue' ourselves. We're looking for non-verbal communication to say that we're on the right track with understanding our child's feelings and needs, probably also going to make the whole thing a lot shorter. If our child is older, has a bit more practice with this, we're going to be listening a lot more. When we understand what each of our needs are, we can find strategies that actually meet both of our needs. And when we can do THAT, our child stops resisting. Because if we're helping them to meet their needs, there's nothing to resist. And if they're helping us to meet our needs, then our 'need' for control evaporates. We don't have to control another person to get our needs met. We just have to understand what our needs are. And underneath the strategies that we're trying to use, and what our child's needs are underneath their strategy of refusing to do what we ask, and then we can find a way that meets both of our needs.


Sometimes, yes, your child is going to ask for things that you want to say 'no' to. A lot of the time, those no's are pretty reflexive. We set a limit on their behavior because we've always done it, or we assume that we have to train them for the cold hard world out there, and because we're giving them freaking EVERYTHING already, and how can there be space for US if we say yes to THEM even more? That's what Ben told me right before he started the free Setting Loving (&Effective!) Limits workshop last year. Here's what he said:


Hi, my name is Ben, our current home life is myself as a stay at home parent. My wife working full time with two children, eight and five. Limits appear to be set 1000s of times a day, and consistently broken. I recently been diagnosed with ADHD, inattention something which explains a lot about my past, but possibly also explains a lot about my problems with raising the children. There never seems to be enough for them. I am not an imaginative kind of person. I'm an engineer by education and everything very ins and imaginative play, I just don't understand. But when I try and engage, it doesn't seem to matter how long it goes for. This includes my wife. It's never enough and always ends in tears and complaining. The only peaceful time we get is when we put them in front of the TV. And then when it's time to turn that off, it ends in tears and anger and significant abuse towards us.


So things were not great here on a number of fronts. Whether you're a stay-at-home dad or not, you probably heard a lot in what Ben said that resonates. You're probably setting a LOT of limits on your child's behavior right now. And they're probably not respecting most of them. You might even try offering choices before you set limits, but because you don't know what your child's needs are, they refuse the choices as well. And I'm sure there are some of you out there who LOVE imaginative play, but I don't know that I've ever met one of you. I'm not very good at it either. It can seem like whatever we do for our children is never enough, so how can setting FEWER limits be the answer?


And I should mention that Ben and the other parents I'm quoting in This episode have given me permission to share their words with you. Just a week after I met him, This is what Ben had to say about setting limits:


The most noticeable change for me in my own behavior is that I am taking the time to consider their many requests instead of the immediate snap No. And the follow up argument as to why not. I'm letting them know that I'm considering them and the kids taking the time to try and catch a hold of me into agreeing to their requests. And that's definitely starting a discussion about what they want to do and what I think is safe and reasonable for their own actions. So it's a very strong start I feel.


So the tool that Ben mentioned is just ONE of the tools that he learned in the Setting Loving (&Effective!) Limits workshop. I run it once a year, and this year's enrollment is open right now. You could even start today if you wanted to on our FlexPath which allows you to complete modules as fast as you like. Complete one module, click the 'done' button, we send the next one right over. It's great for people who want the information fast, who are highly self-motivated, although we do have a mischievous little follow-up mechanism for you in case you forget about it. But if you're the kind of person who prefers to learn in a group, and to not be responsible for deciding when you get the next module, and one module per day for eight week days sounds about right to you, and you don't have major commitments between April 26th and may 5th, then the Guided Path is a better option for you.


The entire workshop is available for free, you can sign up now at YourParentingMojo.com/settinglimits but access to it does expire Sunday, May 6. If you wanted to have access to it forever so you can revisit the content whenever you like. You can upgrade to our Full Experience which is $37. Another part of the full experience is you get to join five 90-minute group coaching calls with me between April 26 and May 5, which is an absolute steal. I don't teach new CONTENT on the group coaching calls, but most folks do see how to APPLY it in ways that they hadn't been able to see without talking it through. You would be SHOCKED at the relationships we build up over those five calls. One parent, Claire, wrote in the chat on the last call last year: "I didn't think I could find a sense of community like this in an online forum." Setting limits sounds like a kind of innocuous topic that it's mostly about learning the right tools and implementing them correctly, but there's actually a lot of layers underneath that, that we can really get into on a coaching call.


Now, I have been on "group coaching calls" for programs I've signed up for where I have been one of about a thousand people on the call, and the host has absolutely no idea who I am or what my specific challenges are, and I left wondering why I'd made the effort to show up instead of watching the recording. This is NOT one of those kinds of calls. Everyone who joins the calls will be visible on one Zoom screen and if enough people signed up that that wouldn't be the case, I would add more call times so you would be sure that I would see YOU and get to know YOU and coach YOU live if you want to be coached. Some people do want to talk with me directly; others just want to lurk and watch others be coached and either way is fine, but either way I will see you. So that Full Experience offer is there if you need it.


And why are we doing this work anyway? Well, I'm not sure I can say it better than Deon said it in a message to me about how she felt after she completed the Setting Limits workshop:


It's yeah, just a relief, I would say overall just a relief and hopeful and just respecting her as a person you know, early on in life, rather than this. You know, thing I've went through and I know my stepdaughter has gone through where you just don't feel validated. You just got to hang in there until you're like 18 and, and then life starts and stuff. That's not the case. So yeah, I would say relief, joy, hope, all those great things.


Isn't that what we're all doing here listening to this episode and trying to figure out this parenting thing? We're looking back and we're seeing how much we were hurt and wanting to make sure our own children don't hurt in the same way that we were hurt. Understanding needs is part of that. Setting boundaries is part of that. And setting limits is occasionally going to be part of that. In the Setting Loving (&Effective!) Limits workshop, I'll help you to see WHEN and HOW to use each of these tools so you can set limits effectively, and also set way fewer of them than you ever thought possible, and all of that will profoundly shift the emotional climate in your home. Whether your child is on the younger side or the older side, it's possible to use these tools even with nonverbal children. So come on in and join us at YourParentingMojo.com/settinglimits.


Whether or not you're able to join me in the Setting Loving (&Effective!) Limits workshop, I hope you now see why giving choices is such a popular strategy to recommend and why it so rarely works. Every once in a while you will stumble on a choice that actually happens to meet your child's need, and they will go along with it. But more often than not, we aren't that lucky and so it doesn't work. So if you want a repeatable framework that works for every interaction you have with your child, whether you're struggling with bananas, or homework or staying out past curfew, I'd love to see you in the Setting Limits workshop. I'll see you there!


Hi, I'm Kelly Peterson from Chicago, Illinois. I'm a Your Parenting Mojo fan. And I hope you enjoyed the show as much as I do. If you found this episode especially enlightening and useful, you can donate to help Jen produce more content like this, and also save us both from those interminable mattress ads you hear on other podcasts, then you can do that. And also subscribe on the link Jen just mentioned. Thanks for listening.

About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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