Let Kids Choose… Except When They Can’t

As parents and caregivers, most of us know that it’s a good idea to let our kids make choices. Offering choice is one of the ways we demonstrate respect for children as competent people. Making appropriate choices encourages them to be decision-makers and problem solvers, helps to foster a sense of autonomy, agency and healthy control in their world. In this episode, Janet shares how we can begin offering our kids choices even as babies and how as toddlers they crave choice as an expression of their burgeoning sense of self. Janet notes, however, that it can get more complicated. There will be times when offering young children even the simplest choice can seem to paralyze them in indecision. In other instances, they’ll make opposing demands on us that can be confusing and infuriating. How do we navigate this? Janet explains by offering guidelines for when and how offering choices works best.

Transcript of “Let Kids Choose . . . Except When They Can’t”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be talking about choices. Most of us know already that it can be helpful and confidence-building to give our young children choices, and continue to give them more and more choice as they get older, so that we can nurture that sense of autonomy and agency in them. They can feel that their point of view is valued by us.

The focus of this podcast is going to be on the less-intuitive aspects of giving children choices, understanding that there are certain situations where we may want to be giving them a choice and it doesn’t work out for us or for them. And that can frustrate us, infuriate us even. How do we puzzle this out? How do we know when to give choices or what kind of choices to give children, and what kind of choices they need us to make? So I’m looking forward to getting into this more thoroughly and hopefully answering some of the questions that you might have.

So yes, it’s pretty intuitive for most of us, this idea of giving our little ones choices. And this becomes more obvious when they are toddlers because they seem to seek that kind of autonomy. That’s part of their development at that age, is to feel their sense of self, their sense of separateness from us, their power in the world. Interestingly, Magda Gerber inspired us to begin offering our children these types of decisions with our infants so that they can get a taste of their little bit of power in the world. Obviously, they are dependent on us in almost every way, but there are a few areas where they can actually start to express self and start to feel more of a sense of autonomy.

For example, when we come in the room or we see them waking up, rather than immediately picking up our baby or directing their attention to us, Hi, sweetie!, she suggested that we first observe whether they might be involved in their own train of thought and not interrupting, because that’s a choice that they are able to make. And that also looks like, that we would place just a couple of simple toys or objects in their vicinity when they’re lying on the floor or in their cribs or in their playpens, rather than placing it in their hand, so that they can decide whether they want to grasp something. Maybe they just want to look at it, or maybe they just want to stretch their arm out towards it. We can trust our babies with those kinds of decisions, and there are many benefits to allowing them to make those whenever possible.

We might consider not putting a mobile or a play gym right above them, right in the center of their vision. That can feel like they don’t have a choice. They can try to look away from it, but it’s a choice that we’ve made for them right there. Instead, if we have a mobile that we think is beautiful or some kind of hanging toys, we might place those to the side, giving that infant a choice to check that out or not. This is also a great way to protect against overstimulation, because babies will turn away when something is too stimulating. They can start to gauge this for themselves better than we can gauge it for them. So when we give them those options, then they have a chance to do that.

Another thing we do is, let’s say our baby is uncomfortable and we sense it’s teething pain, instead of offering them that one teether, we offer two so that even then a baby can choose which of those they want. They often take both, by the way, but at least we’re giving them that chance. They can make these kinds of choices. I didn’t know any of this with my first baby, but with my second two, I saw, Wow, there’s so much going on for them and they are so much more capable than we’d expect. And then the choice that follows those choices is that, once they have chosen that toy or object, and this of course continues throughout their toddlerhood and preschool age and everything, that the materials are there for them—they get to decide how they want to use them. And even with art materials —within reason, with boundaries around it— they get to choose what they do with that, how they experiment with it, and for how long. So those are all really healthy, powerful choices that children can make and continue to make.

Then, as we notice with our toddlers, choices become even more important because developmentally they’re seeking that autonomy and that sense of self as separate from us. It’s healthy for them to do. So offering them choices whenever possible can be empowering for them and set them up to confidently make all kinds of choices throughout their life.

And then here’s where it gets tricky: This desire that we’ll have to keep offering choices, it can also confuse and frustrate us as parents because it can be hard to know when choices don’t work as well or at all. So knowing these things, being clear about the choices we can give and the choices that children can’t make as easily and really do need us to make, will help us a lot as parents. And that’s what I want to focus on in this podcast. I have three types of choices that it can seem like might be a good idea for us to give our child, but they actually need us to make.

1) The first is the most obvious one: false choices. That’s when we give a choice like, Okay, do you want to go to Aunt Lisa’s? And we were already planning, we’re all going to Aunt Lisa’s. That really wasn’t an actual choice we were giving our child, but we were kind of framing it that way because that felt, I don’t know, maybe more respectful or kind. But the thing is, then we’re going to be probably disappointed or frustrated if our child says, No, I don’t want to go. Where do we go from there?

With children, they often miss those kinds of subtleties, and they really need, as much as possible, clarity: Is this my choice or isn’t it? And even that word, “okay?”. So for me, I still say, “okay?” at the end of a sentence with a child sometimes because it’s such a habit for so many of us. It’s time to go, okay? We’re going to do this now, okay? I mean, none of this is cut and dry, but it’s just something to be aware of, that “okay?” is offering the choice: Is this okay with you or not? When the only answer we want is yes to that choice, then maybe we should reconsider the way we’re framing those sentences. Choices that are actually not choices, it’ll work better for us if we try to avoid those.

Then even choices like, Do you want to go in two minutes or five minutes? Hmm, all right, so I guess that’s a real choice. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It just feels a little bit —and I think it will come off to children as a little bit— tricky and manipulative. That we’re trying to pretend we’re giving them a choice, but it’s really not that great of a choice. Just something to consider. Because directness, honesty, clarity, we can count on those as our best policies. That’s what we want to model for children, right? And that is the most respectful. And we’re all works in progress at this. But if we’re aiming to be that confident, loving leader that’s not afraid to say the truth, not afraid of our child not being happy with our decisions because we know that that’s part of their right. And especially as toddlers, to be that autonomous person means disagreeing with us a lot of the time. Even when they don’t actually disagree, but they just feel the need to. So the more that we can meet those situations with confidence because we expect them, we know it’s okay, that it’s not our job to please our child all the time. In fact, it’s our job to help them have an honest relationship with us. And part of that is the ups and downs of our relationship, the ups and downs of our boundaries and what we allow, what’s going to work for us and the rest of the family. The more that they can feel those ups and downs, the more confidence and happiness they feel.

2) The second type of choice that will help us to be aware of: choices in transitions. Transitions, I have my theories that I’ve expressed here before about why these are so hard for young children. I think one of the reasons… I kind of understand them is because they are still hard for me. The toddler in me gets, I don’t know, this weird, panicky feeling sometimes when I just have to go from point A to point B. Getting ready to go out somewhere, all of a sudden I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do. There’s a stress involved in it, leaving one thing that you were doing and moving on to another. And for young children, with all the developmental transition that’s going on inside them, and then oftentimes situational transitions in their lives— moving houses, finishing school, starting a school, a new baby in the family. All of those things add another layer of transition. And then these little everyday transitions, especially going to bed at night, that’s the hardest of all, right? Because they’re tired, we’re tired. That’s the king of all transitions and not in the best way.

So I would be very careful about giving choices in transitions. A simple choice like, Do you want to walk to the car or shall I carry you? Now, this doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t give a choice like that, because it can also help a child through a transition to feel that they are in charge of that in some real way. But when doing that, I would always have in the back of your mind, if you can remember to, that they may not be able to make this choice, because it’s a transition. And I just think of this capital T, this kind of neon sign, Transition! Transition!, just to help myself prepare for the idea that my child may not be able to do that.

We might look at this as similar to when we’re in a big life transition —which young children are every day because they’re changing so much and growing so much— that trying to figure out what we want to make for dinner, that kind of choice, it’s just nice to have somebody else say, Okay, we’re going to bring the dinner, or, Let’s just put this together. Because having to just make those simple choices when we’re overwhelmed is really hard. And this is how young children feel a lot of the time. So when we give the choice like that, which is still great to offer, have in your mind they may not be able to do it, and they may need me to help them through.

So I’m poised right there, ready, to see, can my child move forward with getting into the car, let’s say. I offer the choice and now they’re pausing. So what we often end up doing as parents is we wait, we wait. And then the longer we wait, the harder this gets for our child, because it’s like they’re falling into this chasm of transition-land and they’re getting stuck. So before that has a chance to happen, I would say, You know what? I’m going to pick you up and take you, or, Come on, let’s go. I’m going to actually be the one to put this on for you. And yes, our child may complain at that point. They may have a strong reaction. I would expect that too, because that’s them expressing the discomfort of the transition. And maybe through that, the discomfort of all the other transitions going on for them. All of those are getting expressed together, which is why it’s often so strong when children express things. Seems like, Wow, we’re really hurting them, helping them to the car or helping them in the car seat, because they express things all the way.

And that’s why I recommend what I call confident momentum, knowing that transitions are a time that children will need more help and more awareness on our part, that this is tough for them, and they probably can’t handle a lot of decision-making power. They may be able to handle a little bit, but not necessarily. And definitely not a lot. Sometimes I’ve seen this, very loving parents, we want to give three decisions, right? Do you want to go this way, that way, or the other way? And then that gets really impossible for a child in a transition. I’m not saying they can never do it, but it’s a tricky place.

The other day I had an experience that ended up inspiring, in part, this topic today. I was jogging on the public beach near me. It’s a small town, and I guess this parent had already reached out to me and we couldn’t quite click. She wanted to start a little group of children for me to come facilitate, and we just couldn’t arrange it together. But anyway, I’m jogging by and this woman said, “Are you Janet Lansbury?” And believe me, I don’t get recognized randomly, but because it’s a small town, and she had reached out to me. And she said, “Oh, you know, I’m a fan of your work. Thank you. And I love it, but it’s really hard, right? And you know, it just doesn’t always work.” And not to negate anybody’s experience, but I wouldn’t be doing any of this if I thought it was too hard and that it wasn’t going to work. For me, there’s just no point sharing something that I think might or might not work. I’m not confident about a lot of things in my life, but I’m very confident that this works. And so I gently countered her and was asking what she was referring to.

By then I stopped jogging and we were talking, and she was great and really open. Her adorable toddler son was right there. And she said, “I try to help him go to the car and I give him a choice, or what shoes he wants to wear. Then I wait and wait, and then he can’t, and then he changes his mind, and it’s really, really hard, right? And then when I do have to pick him up or help him move, then he gets really, really upset.”

And so because I was with her, I was able to hear that and actually kind of show her, without touching her son. (Although he was trying to distract me so I wouldn’t talk to her about this!) I was able to gesture and demonstrate with her. I was even kind of bending towards him as I gave him the choice. And so I was ready, with my hands out, ready to help him if he paused. And I showed her how, if he pauses, you can help him right away. And then you may get some pushback for sure, but it won’t be to the extent of what happens when we wait for our child to make that choice. And we’re trying to be so respectful and so caring and loving, but we’re making it harder for our child and harder for ourselves without meaning to. And she was grateful, I think, for the advice. And she said, “Oh, okay, yeah, that makes it clearer.”

This is so much easier to demonstrate than to try to explain in words or even in a podcast. So I appreciate those opportunities. I’ve never seen this not work. I don’t know if that sounds cocky or something, but it’s really what I believe.

So, choices in transitions, be careful. It’s probably more of a yellow light. Just be careful, be aware that it might not work. And as soon as you feel your child pausing or stuck, you can help them through very lovingly and make that decision for them.

3) The third area where choices can be difficult, and this dovetails with the transitions topic: when children are upset, dysregulated, or otherwise not in a reasonable state of mind. Very hard for them to make a choice then, because a choice takes the prefrontal cortex part of their brain, which is not developed, not in a mature state, so it very easily goes offline. And we all know that happens to all of us when we’re dysregulated or upset. We can’t access that reasonable part of ourselves. We can see when our child is upset, that isn’t going to be a time that they can make choices. I’m not going to say always, but almost always.

Here’s an email I received:

Hi Janet,

My daughter is two-and-a-half. She has entered a stage where she wants and then doesn’t want and then wants something. In the context of extremely intense emotions— screaming, pushing away, with risk of throwing, crying, begging me to come close, but then insisting on space if I do.

I would love your perspective on this. It seems like she’s in distress. She’s having strong emotions and I want to welcome those, but I don’t want to accommodate the yes/nos. I tell her after the first one that I won’t accommodate, so I either won’t give her the thing or won’t come to her despite her begging for a hug. Because I know if I do, she’ll scream and demand that I give her space. Any advice or recommendations here?

Sometimes I have to “mama bear” if she’s in one of these modes and it is time to change clothes. But otherwise, if we have time, I try to just take her to her room and ride it out with her. But the intensity of it really makes me question myself. Am I feeding this behavior in some way? Am I refusing to give her the emotional support she needs by setting a boundary when she starts the yes/nos and refusing to come to her or give her the thing? It is such a frustrating place because there is no winning, especially when it’s bedtime.

Yes. So this is a common issue, and this parent is spot on that her child can’t make those decisions at those times. The two-and-a-half-year-old is not accessing the reasonable part of her brain. She can’t do it.

This parent says, “She’s having strong emotions and I want to welcome those, but I don’t want to accommodate the yes/nos. I tell her after the first one that I won’t accommodate.”

So when we say, I’m not going to do this if you change your mind again, that makes sense, right? And it’s honest. The only problem is, it’s talking to her reasonable side of her brain to say that. Well, if you do that again, then I’m not going to give you this. Maybe that works if our child is in a reasonable state of mind, but when they’re upset like this, that is a misconnection. It’s talking to a part of her that isn’t able to listen. That can feel even worse to a child than they already feel when they’re upset. Obviously that’s not what we’re intending, but they feel like we’re not really seeing them and what they need right then.

So instead of talking about it that way, hopefully we can breathe and understand this is normal for children to go through these meltdowns and emotional states. And that we are safe, and we can be that safe person for them. So we’re calming ourselves. We can hear that voice inside us say, Oh, she’s not in a reasonable state of mind, so she can’t make the choice probably. So maybe stick with one of the choices and don’t give her another. So saying that to yourself, rather than to her.

And what that would look like is, this parent says, despite begging for a hug, “I know if I do, she’ll scream and demand that I give her space.” So mostly when children are really upset and kind of flailing like this —and the parent calls it “pushing away, the risk of throwing, crying, begging me to come close, but then insisting on space if I do”— mostly when children are in these meltdown states, a hug is not going to help or reach them. And so I would have that in mind too.

But then knowing her child as she does, she knows that she will ask for the opposite. So I would give her the space, just being there for her without touching her. And if she says, I want a hug as part of that meltdown, that’s part of those feelings. She probably doesn’t even know what she’s saying there, much less meaning what she’s saying. So look at her, hear her. You want a hug, and then you push me away and you want me to go away. Maybe you even say that. Or maybe you just say this to yourself and you nod your head, looking at her with empathy and soft eyes and safety.

So you know all this information, but you don’t need to try to change her mind because you’re not going to. She’s stuck where she’s stuck.

That’s what I would do with any choice that children are trying to make or have us make in these situations. Sometimes children have even asked me, I want water, water!, and, I’m thirsty. But if we wait for a moment, because if we brought them that water, they’d probably hit the glass away or not be able to drink it. They’re not in that calm state yet, and they will be there sooner the more that we accept and hold space for these feelings to pass.

This parent says, “I don’t want to accommodate the yes/nos.” Absolutely, don’t accommodate. Make the safe choice as a parent and welcome her to feel what she feels about it. Because the more you welcome this with open arms, well, not literally arms, but rolling out the red carpet for her to feel this, the more quickly and easily she’ll pass through it.

One other thing this parent says is, “Am I feeding this behavior in some way?” I think the only thing that she’s doing is maybe a little bit misreading what she can say in these moments, or what her daughter will understand. And really trusting this more, finding more decisiveness in herself about her role in these moments.

This parent also says something about, “take her in her room and ride it out with her.” But this idea of riding things out with our child is, in a way, giving it too much, I don’t want to say attention, but making too much of an event out of it. Instead, I would be there for her, keeping her safe. You’re waiting it out with her, but I would wait it out as the anchor in her storm, not riding the waves with her. That is going to drain a parent and make it much harder for them the rest of the day. So it’s really more helpful to both of us to be in our role as this separate person who trusts our child to be in these states. And we help them when they need help getting from point A to point B, but it’s not our job to make this better or ride it along with them.

If we have to go do something or we want to go do something, we can do it, holding out that same space for the feelings and trusting them. Children can sense sometimes when we’re kind of feeling it with them or we’re impatient or we’re telling them things that really are best kept in our own minds and hearts.

When she’s done, then we can talk. But I wouldn’t go over it with, Well, this is why I didn’t hug you, because you changed your mind and all that. Unless she says something like, Why didn’t you hug me?, I wouldn’t bring that up. We don’t need to remind them of how out of control they were.

And then I really feel what this parent said: “It’s such a frustrating place because there’s no winning, especially when it’s bedtime.” Yes, bedtime is going to be the hardest time and the hardest time for us to let go if she’s not in the happiest mood. Yeah, it’s not about winning. It’s about the comfort that we feel in our role as the loving adult in the room.

I hope some of this helps. I go into these topics much more clearly and deeply, and I actually demonstrate the countenance that I describe here for helping to co-regulate with our children and allow them to process their feelings in my new No Bad Kids Master Course. You can read all about at nobadkidscourse.com.

And please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. You can get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. And you can even get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. If your child can’t make the decision between walking or being carried to the car when it’s time to leave the park, so you have confident momentum and pick them up and just take them, but then they start screaming and flailing and fighting you getting them in their car seat… what do you do?

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