Roots and Wings: Giving Choices and Setting Boundaries

I often write about the importance of giving children choices.  They are struggling with a need to feel powerful in a world that often makes them feel powerless.  Being able to take control and make their own choices gives them that powerful feeling, meaning they feel less compelled to seek out power in negative ways like tantrums or fighting.  Children also need to be offered choices to give them practice making decisions and experience handling consequences as life skills.  Giving children choices is important.  But it is also important to recognize that as adults, we need to be clear in setting the boundaries for those choices.

Life is Full of Choices

Any time we offer a choice to a child, we have to be willing to accept it.  Nothing ignites the wrath of a child like having a choice taken away.  (This is why sarcasm and “bluffing” don’t work so well when it comes to child guidance.)  When we offer a child a choice, we need to offer that choice within the boundary of what we feel is acceptable.

A simple example could be:

It’s slushy outside!  Would you like to wear your snowboots or your rainboots?” rather than “Would you like to put on your shoes?” The first choice outlines acceptable choices, where the second choice gives no boundaries.  Your child could simply say,”No thanks!” or come running back to you with a pair of flip-flops on. 

It’s fairly easy to see how to frame choices within boundaries, when we think about the dichotomous choices throughout a child’s day: “Do you want to wear the red pants or the blue pants?” “Do you want to eat oatmeal or yogurt?”  “Do you want to read first or brush teeth first?”  Offering these simple choices throughout the day is doing a great service to our children.  But in reality, life is full of choices — Hit or share? Run or Walk? Color on the paper, the wall, the piano, or the table? — and children need to know their boundaries for those choices as well.

Little Scientists

One common complaint that I hear about young children is that “they’re always testing my limits“.  This is a frustrating thing, to be sure, but it’s really a good thing.  Children are natural scientists.  They are hard-wired to learn.  They form questions and test hypotheses.  They want to know what the boundaries are, and so they make a guess and test it out.  You’ve seen that scientist face they make, that side glance they use to try to monitor your reaction without giving away their secret scientific study. 

As every good scientist knows, results have to be replicated.  You can’t just get a result once, and accept it!  Young children have mastered this scientific truth.  No playing in the toilet?  OK.  Well, this is a different toilet.  Can I play in this one?  How about this one?  What about on Tuesdays?  What if I’m wearing purple?   Will Dad let me do it?  How about Grandma?

When do scientists stop running tests?  When they get enough consistent results to lead them to believe that every future test will end the same way.   I wish I could give you a magic number, say that if you are consistent 3 times, your child won’t push it again.  But I can’t.  Some children are more rigorous scientists than others.  Some can draw a broad conclusion from one “study”.  Others want to explore every possible angle before arriving at a conclusion.  I can tell you this though.  The number of times they need to get a different response before starting the experimental process all over again is: 1

We’ve all been there.  Absolutely no eating in bed is a hard and fast rule.  Then Hattie gets sick and you’re so desperate just to get her to eat something that you let her eat in bed.  Just. This. Once.  But guess what Hattie says the next time you tell her no eating in bed?  “But you let me last week!”  Now, I’m not saying you should never bend the rules.  You just have to know that when you show inconsistencies in your boundaries, you’ll start that experimental process all over again.  (Luckily, if you were consistent before and consistent after, children tend to move through that scientific process much more quickly.  But they still have to try it.  At least once.)

They really do push your boundaries, because they want to know where those boundaries are.  Believe it or not, for as much as children want to make choices, they also want to know that ultimately you will take charge.  They want to know that they are safe to explore and experiment and test because they know they can trust you to intervene and keep them within safe boundaries. 

Sometimes, when I hear that a child’s behavior is “out of control” I question whether that is because the child feels out of control due to a lack of boundaries.  The child may be testing again and again just waiting for someone to finally step in and say, “This is the limit.”  This of course doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily thank you for your gallant act.  They’ll still likely throw that tantrum or get that pouty look going.  But they’ll know they can trust you.  Just think of their disappointed reaction as one last test of the strength of the boundary.  With time and consistency, the strength of the boundary increases and the strength of your child’s negative reaction decreases.

Parents who offer their children a lot of choices are sometimes accused of being passive parents, not taking charge, or not “being the parent”.  In reality, these accusations have nothing to do with offering choices, and everything to do with setting boundaries.  When you teach a child how to make choices within boundaries, you give them one of the most important social lessons they can learn in life. 

(Originally posted October, 2010.)

For more on giving choices and setting boundaries, check out my ebook Parenting with Positive Guidance (and until Sunday you can use the code CREEK to get it for just $8, thanks to Willow Creek Pediatrics).

Top photo by Michaela Kobyakov.



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