Letting Your Child Make Choices
Choices shape our lives. They can be easy or hard, definite or passive, but the period when a child begins learning to make choices can be a difficult time for the family. A parent may want to steer a child toward the best one, but helping too much may lead to temper tantrums.
Still, trying new things and feeling secure in one’s chosen decisions are important in developing positive self-esteem. Parents can use positive methods and understanding to direct their children through this critical developmental phase.
“A lot of parents do want the baby to try new things,” said Sharon Jordan, child development instructor at Tulsa Community College’s West Campus. “But when the baby goes out and explores, the parents are more inclined to hover, especially if it’s the baby’s first time, so they do not let the baby build up self-confidence [by allowing him to do things on his own].”
Through making choices, a child can grow to learn he can work on his own. Jordan says that venturing out without running back to have a parent help in the effort builds self-confidence, social skills, communication skills, self-control, and curiosity in a child.
However, children who don’t yet have words to express themselves to other children or adults may need understanding adults to guide them through potentially frustrating situations.
Even highly verbal children need calm adult guidance to help them learn to make choices in appropriate ways. According to Sheila Milnes of Penn State University, toddlers between ages of 1 and 3 begin to use very complex sentences, but these verbal abilities often develop faster than their mental and emotional maturity. This can lead to others thinking the toddler understands much more than she does.
For example, if she wants to play with a toy another child is using, she may not consider choosing another toy. If the choice of a substitute toy is offered in a positive way, she may readily agree to the substitute. On the other hand, she may hit or throw a temper tantrum if she is “told” to play with the fallback toy. At this age, children are just beginning to understand expected behaviors and need help from parents and caregivers.
During a child’s toddler years, parents may often find themselves wondering when to step in with gentle guidance, and when to let go. Becoming suddenly stubborn when they think their choices are not accepted is a characteristic of the toddler years.
“My middle son decided he only wanted to wear his Robin Hood costume every day to kindergarten,” reminisced Di Walker, remembering the battles she and her son had to go through every day to get him appropriately dressed.
From fussing about crusts on bread, to refusing to even wear clothes, parents must find practical, appropriate ways to help a toddler feel her choices are valued.
“Toddlers are torn,” said Milnes. “They want the security of their everyday routine, and they also want the ability to make choices for themselves.”
To avoid battles and tantrums, Milnes advises parents to give the child simple choices. For example, have two choices of clothing available for decision, rather than sending a child to get dressed from a whole closet full of choices.
She said this gives the child an important feeling of power and acknowledges that they are being heard. Toddlers are eager to try out some decision-making, but the choices should be simple rather than overwhelming.
When young children learn to make choices, good humor can be key. All of the passions children feel at this age are what makes up the joy of living with a toddler.
Enjoy the process of helping your child learn to make choices, and know that any stubbornness your toddler exhibits now will do him well in the future when a hard decision is really on the line.