Want to avoid power struggles, defuse tantrums, and raise kids who become confident, capable adults? Give them choices. Research shows that allowing kids to make their own decisions–beginning much earlier than many parents think–helps build skills that support better decisions through adulthood.
But when and how should parents start letting kids choose for themselves? Is it possible to give too many options? And how can parents help older children and teens navigate tough choices without interfering with their growth? Read on for age-by-age guidance on raising choice champions.
EARLY YEARS 0-5
Parents can skip the “terrible twos” by offering kids choices, starting at age one. Per clinical psychologist Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., a family therapist, allowing young toddlers to make some of their own decisions provides a sense of self-efficacy and identity. “With repeated opportunities to make their own decisions, there’s less of a chance children will experience ‘the terrible twos’ and try to assert their control aggressively,” she says.
Parents can avoid power struggles by offering a couple of options that keep their desired result in mind. If you need your child to leave the park, ask “do you want to walk, or do you want me to carry you?” instead of “do you want to leave or stay?” The rule of thumb for giving choices is to be sure to follow through, be very specific, and give limited choices–usually two choices is enough, says Maidenberg. “For young children or any child who is easily overwhelmed, becomes anxious, or is easily agitated, an either/or choice works best.”
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12
Is it possible to overload kids with choices? A recent study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found when it comes to choices, more isn’t better: too many options results in less engagement with the item or activity they choose. So asking kids to choose a title from a stack of a half-dozen books leaves them with less time and energy to actually read the book, while selecting from just two books results in more time spent reading.
Offering kids choices may even help keep less enriching activities in check. The researchers propose that caregivers might be able to use these findings to limit the time kids spend on less desirable activities–like watching TV or playing video games–without nagging or setting timers. Instead, simply allow kids to choose from a large menu of shows or games. Science says they may lose interest more quickly, no parental intervention required.
TEEN YEARS 13-18
Choices on call
For parents of teenagers, supporting good choices is a balancing act: We want to help kids successfully navigate bigger decisions–from choosing how much to spend on a pair of sneakers to deciding which colleges, scholarships, or jobs to pursue–without sabotaging their decision-making process.
The key to supporting growth in this area is listening to your teen, says therapist Kate Paquin, a family coach. Consider whether your child has asked for your help and whether they want your help making this decision, she says. “We all have thoughts on how our children should do things, but during the teen years we move from 100 percent manager to 50 percent manager and 50 percent consultant. It can be hard to know when to use which skill set, but ask yourself ‘why does this matter to me, and what is their goal?’” That might mean smiling and allowing your child to make a lavish purchase they’ve saved for, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Allowing teens to find their own way through bigger decisions helps them discover their own strengths, boundaries, and values–as well as when and how to ask for a parent’s help when they need it.