If you are the parent of a young child you know that choices make up a big part of your parenting vocabulary on a daily basis. All the parenting “advice” out there says to offer your toddlers a choice between two options to help them feel empowered and perhaps prevent some meltdowns. For example, you might say, “Sally, would you like to wear the purple socks or the white socks?” This, of course, is a method to prevent the unheard third option of the child refusing to wear socks at all.
I do this often with my kids and it does work…most of the time. Over the years, however, I have learned that offering choices to my kids can sometimes backfire. They get used to the idea that they have a lot of input into how we will progress through the course of the day. As adults, we know that this does not always work. Sometimes we have to go to the grocery store or the doctor’s office and there is no choice in the matter.
This caused me to wonder if having too many choices can actually be paralyzing to kids. We have all had the experience of going to a shoe store or clothing store and tried to pick out items for our child. If you have your young child with you and give them some input in the choices, you know this can go downhill fast. The thought of getting something new coupled with a dizzying array of choices can cause many kids to meltdown quickly. In our affluent society, there are so many choices of things like clothes and shoes that kids are simply overwhelmed.
This idea came to mind as I was listening to a podcast the other day and it was all about the science of choice. Not something we think of too often. After years of studying how people make choices and how their choices affect their happiness, psychologists have found one thing to be clear—people are actually happier when they have less freedom to change their choice.
Researchers conducted a study in which photography students were told, after working for months on their photographs, that they could only pick one to take home and one to leave at the school. One group was told that they could switch the one they took home at any time. Another group was told their choice was final—they could not switch which photo they took home and which they left. What the researchers found was that the group who had to make an irrevocable choice were actually happier with their choice months later.
Why is this? Psychologist think that it is because we rationalize the choice we make when we know it is final. On the other hand, if we have in the back of our minds that we can switch our choice, we always doubt whether we made the right one.
It seems counterintuitive but I think there is a kernel of truth in this that can help us with parenting young children too. Choices are good, but they must also have boundaries attached to them. Young children do need to feel empowered to choose, but the choices must be limited in some way. Given too many choices, young children go from feeling empowered to feeling out of control.
To my mind, this is the essence of authoritative parenting. Children are given choices, at the right developmentally appropriate time and within certain boundaries. As children grow, authoritative parents provide increasing chances for kids to test their decision-making skills, but the parents are always there to provide the firm boundary beyond which the child cannot go. It’s no surprise that authoritative parenting is what in research is associated with the best outcomes for kids.
Authoritative parents provide some choices, but the choices are limited based on what is best for the child at a certain age. For example, they may allow an older child the choice to walk to a neighborhood park or a neighbor friend’s house, but they may not leave the neighborhood to go anywhere else. This gives the child some sense of empowerment, but firm boundaries on what the expected behavior will be. If the boundaries are crossed, then the opportunity to make choices goes away and the child stays at home.
Sometimes psychology seems like common sense, but other times the research conducted in labs actually reveals something that is counterintuitive, but that can really help us in our daily lives. This research on choice really helps us understand that for both kids and adults choices can be good, but certain boundaries on them can actually be helpful.