Giving children choices

Updated: Apr 9, 2021


You’re preparing a snack for your son Dylan. You open the fridge and start naming the items in it.  “Do you want a peanut butter sandwich?” Dylan shakes his head. “How about yogurt?” He shakes his head again.  

You start getting exasperated.  “How about some carrot sticks?” Again, he shakes his head and now, starts to cry.  You start feeling frustrated, “Tell me what you want to eat and I’ll make it for you”. Dylan hears his mom’s tone and lets out a loud cry and starts walking out of the dining room.  You stare at him, stunned that a peaceful afternoon became a teary one.


You: "I’ve had a long day and I just wanna get this kid fed!"

"What is going on? ...He’s usually ok with of these choices"

"I don’t understand why he just can’t pick one."


Dylan:  “Peanut butter … yogurt … carrot sticks… they ALL sound good"

"I don’t know which to choose and now mommy is looking angry"

"I don’t know what to do so she won’t get mad at me, but I can’t choose."

"I can’t remember what peanut butter or yogurt taste like. …...(cries)."


Dylan’s mom gave him too many choices. It overwhelmed him. Children’s capacity to hold many ideas or directions is very limited.  Their memory is short-term and they can’t handle too many decisions on the spot. Dylan’s mom could have given him 2 choices, that’s it. This way, he is only holding 2 ideas at a time. “Which do you want, Dylan, carrot sticks or yogurt?”

Asking a child what he wants is actually asking a child to participate in his life.  It’s easier to just plop any food in front of them. It’s easier to put their shoes on them instead of taking the time to teach them and WAITING for them to try over and over. But there are a lot of benefits to asking a child to participate in their life instead of doing things TO them or talking AT them. 

  • Children feel empowered when they are asked what they want for a snack.

  • Sometimes, they enjoy the food more because THEY chose it.  

  • Asking them to make a decision that they will benefit from (yummy food) helps grow their cognitive skills. (they will relate being proactive to get something good in return).

  • Taking the time to help them build skills may take too much time over the next few weeks, but when they learn, they saved you time forever AND they built something in their mind that no one can take away.

Other instances

This strategy of handing over the power of deciding can be used throughout the day.  

Here are some:  

When it’s time to leave the house – give them the option of climbing in the stroller OR holding your hand.

  • This way, the whole argument of leaving is taken off the table. They just have to decide which one - they’re leaving the house no matter what!

When they don’t want to do something, like go to their room to go to bed,  ask them, “Do you want to walk to your room or do you want me to carry you there?

When it’s time to put on the gloves and hat because it’s cold,  ask them “Do you want to put on your gloves first or your hat first?

  • Same concept: they’re going to end up wearing both, they just get to decide in which order to put them on.

* If your child is older (3 and up), you can add an explanation like:

"It’s important to stay warm and healthy during the winter, so we have to put gloves and hats on. Which do you want to put on first?

References: Building Social and Emotional Skills at Home

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