By Olivia K Pitkethly, MA, LMHC
I remember being a kid and going to Toys ‘R’ Us, gripping a gift certificate in my little hand. I felt like I was holding a lottery ticket as I walked down every aisle, amazed at how many toys were available at my chubby fingertips. But I also felt overwhelmed and anxious because I just did not know what to pick. To this day, I cannot remember which precious object came home with me, but I do remember the conflict between joy and confusion.
You are probably already noticing your toddler’s desire for independence. He may be pushing boundaries (and your buttons!) when he refuses to eat breakfast or put on his shoes. Parents can promote this newfound independence within acceptable boundaries by providing their child with a choice between two food types or two pairs of shoes.
While giving your child a choice can be an empowering exercise, having too many choices can be confusing and scary, especially for a tiny tot. Erin Leyba, author of “Joy Fixes for Weary Parents” said that giving your child the opportunity to use his voice and make decisions can build respect, improve the parent-child bond and can capitalize on the child’s natural need for power and control.
Leyba suggested giving your toddler no more than two choices. So, instead of asking which park he wants to go to, offer just two parks to choose from. This way, the parent provides structure and allows the child freedom with preapproved options.
Melissa Larena is a mother of two girls, ages 2 and 3. While she encourages her daughters to discover and play on their own, she notes her younger daughter tends to take her sister’s toys away from her. That is when she steps in to diffuse the situation.
“I give her two other toys as options, and she seems to like having a choice,” said Larena. “She smiles and grabs what she wants and she is happy with herself.”
Empowering your toddler with decision-making goes beyond the playroom and into the kitchen. Larena said that although her older daughter is more easy-going, she tends to be a picky eater, so she gives her choices. “If she doesn’t like what is for dinner and she hasn’t eaten much in the day, I ask if she would like eggs or grilled cheese,” she said. “But not always because I don’t want her to think she does the menu. I think two choices are better and easier for both of us.”
Leyba recommended maintaining consistency with your children. “If you give children choices once, but not the next time, they naturally get frustrated and protest,” she wrote. For example, if your child gets to choose her breakfast one morning, but not the next, she will be confused by the incongruence.
Leyba also suggests creating a ritual around the choice. Pick out two movies for your child to choose from for family movie night. Hang up two shirts every morning and allow your toddler to pick one to wear to school that day. And do not forget to praise and thank him for his choice. “You picked a really funny movie!” or “That shirt looks very cute on you!” can go a long way to building your child’s confidence and self-esteem.