Sheryl Jesin

When the best choice is no choice


When Dylan started walking at around 11 months, we moved from baby-land to toddler-land.  Toddler-land was uncharted territory for us.  With his new found mobility, Dylan began to explore anything and everything with zeal.   Charging towards stairs, opening cupboards and drawers, pulling things off coffee tables and shelves…the more dangerous the better!  I found myself constantly saying NO!  I didn’t like the negative person I had become.

First things first – it was time to baby proof.  We installed gates, locks on drawers and cupboards…we cleared off coffee tables and low shelves and of course put those little plastic thingies in every exposed outlet.   Our house became a safe place for Dylan to explore…and NO was no longer my favorite word.

I had read all the baby books and now it was time to crack open some toddler books.  First on my list was the No-Cry Discipline Solution by Elizabeth Pantley, and second was the Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp.  Baby books by the same authors had helped me when Dylan was little, so I decided to give these books a try.  They both had lots of AP friendly tips for dealing with the new toddler issues that we were facing.

A common suggestion in both of these books was to offer your toddler choices.  By offering a choice, you make your toddler feel as if he or she has a say in things.  All day long toddlers are told what to do by adults- time to change your diaper, time to get dressed, hurry up –  it’s time to go outside now, time to eat lunch…etc.   By offering your toddler a choice between two alternatives, you return some of the power to them, thereby avoiding power struggles.  For example, when it’s time to get dressed in the morning, a parent can ask their toddler:  “do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt today”, instead of just saying:  “hurry up and get dressed!”

The theory made sense to me, and I was eager to give it a try!  However, I found when Dylan was a young toddler (12-20 months), he didn’t really understand the concept of choosing.  And as he got older, I sometimes found that he didn’t want either option!  For example, if it was time to go out and I said “do you want to put your jacket or shoes on first”, he’d just say “NO!”  He didn’t want to put on either, and the fact that I cleverly created a choice didn’t fool him!

Other times I found that he was not capable of choosing between two equally good choices. One evening we were leaving my parents’ house after dinner.  We had two cars there because Dylan and I arrived in one car and my husband Jake arrived from work in another.   I came up with the bright idea of asking Dylan:  “Do you want to drive home in mommy’s car or daddy’s car?”  Dylan answered me by saying:  “Mommy’s car.  No – Daddy’s car!  N0 – mommy’s car.  No – daddy’s car!”  Obviously he was having a very difficult time choosing between us.

I want my daddy!

Jake tried to put Dylan in the carseat in my car.  A tantrum ensued.  Dylan was screaming:  “No!!! Mommy’s car!” over and over.  So then Jake tried putting Dylan in my car.  “NOOOO!  DADDY’S CAR!!!!” At this point we were tired and just wanted to get home.  So Dylan stayed in my car and cried for his daddy most of the way home.  I absolutely hate to hear my son cry for any reason.  Thankfully it is a short drive!

We learned our lesson.  The next time we were out somewhere with two cars, we didn’t ask Dylan if he wanted to drive home with mommy or daddy.   We just put him in a car and that was that!  He didn’t know he had a choice, and he didn’t feel pressured to make the right decision.   He was happy, and we were happy!

What has your experience been with choices?  Have you had luck with other toddler discipline theories?

3 thoughts on “When the best choice is no choice

  1. We did the choices thing, for sure. In fact, sometimes I still do it with my 5-year-old. But it doesn’t always work, not by a long shot. Sometimes she wants something else entirely, or sometimes she just wants nothing altogether, or sometimes the problem is really that she’s tired and hungry and can’t function.

    I will say that for us, choices work best when they’re age-appropriate. It’s not always easy to discern what IS age-appropriate, but with time I’ve gotten better at it. And it has changed over the years, too. That’s the joy of parenting, it’s always a moving target.

    • I agree – choices work best when they are age appropriate! I am learning now what is age appropriate for a 2 year old, and when we are better off not giving him a choice at all. Everyday I learn something new about parenting!

  2. We’ve been trying choices with our 16 month old – it started by accident when I offered him a choice of sitting in his high chair or a normal chair to eat and he ran eagerly to his high chair. Now I try to give him choices when I can since it gets such a positive result (would you like fish fingers or chicken tonight?). We also give him choices for correct behaviour – sit down or get down when he’s standing on a chair – or tell him what his options are if he wants something else he can’t have. Also when he expresses a preference for something and there’s no reason he can’t have his way I let him change (eg doesn’t want a particular shirt on).

    My biggest problem is giving him an option then realising he can’t have it immediately and then do I stand firm with the ensuing tantrum or agree that I should give him whatever it is since I had (stupidly) offered it? I’ve been trying hard to stand firm when I say no since I realised I’d been giving into tantrums.

    Thanks for your post – it’s great to have put into words what we’re trying to do and to see how it works for someone else 🙂

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