Practical tips for parents and caregivers

If you’re looking for ways to motivate your kids and engage their commitment and cooperation, one of the easiest ways to do so is to offer options. Here’s how to make this strategy work most effectively.

• Choices, like boundaries, are motivational tools that encourage cooperation through input and empowerment. Offer choices in the absence of desirable child behavior, to encourage your child to perform a particular behavior he or she is not currently demonstrating.

• Choices can help you avoid power struggles, opposition, foot-dragging, and passive-aggressive behavior. They offer your kids a certain degree of autonomy (power) within limits or structure that you determine.

• Choices build responsibility and commitment, and communicate the parent’s respect for children’s needs and preferences.

• Choices can also help prevent disruptive behaviors, however other strategies will be suggested for intervening negative behavior or reinforcing performance, growth, and existing positive behavior.

• Present available options in a positive manner. Be careful that the choice doesn’t end up spoken as “do it or else.” (Yes, even this is a choice!)

• Be honest. Make sure that all options you offer are acceptable. Avoid conditioning your children to people-please by requiring them read your mind to choose the right option. Make sure there are no wrong choices: If you don’t want the child to choose something, don’t make it an option. (For example, if you want them to do a particular chore first, offer options about the other chores—after the first chore is finished.)

• Make sure the choices you offer are clear and specific. Telling your child, “I want you to behave when you get to the store,” leaves you open for some pretty broad interpretations. Instead, define choices with clearly-stated limits. “You can decide which cereal you want” or “You can pick one small candy bar when we check out,” is much easier for the child to understand—and perform successfully.

• Start simple. If your child is having difficulty making decisions, it may be that there are too many options or that the limits are too broad or unclear.

• If your kids have difficulty with even a simple choice, narrow the choices, if possible, and add another limit if necessary, for example, asking them to choose within a certain amount of time (after which you get to make the choice for them). Be patient. Some young children and well-conditioned order-takers need time and practice to develop confidence in their ability to choose (or trust you to accept the choices they make within the limits you set).

• Increase options as your children can handle them, either by widening the range of choices you offer or by making the options more complex.

• Depending on your goals, schedule, and resources, you might leave room for the child to change her mind if she is disappointed with a choice she’s made. If time and management require your kids to make a choice and stick with it, make that clear when you present the available options. Reassure them that they can “try again later (or tomorrow or next week).” 

• As they become more capable, encourage your kids to participate in setting up choices (or negotiate an alternative assignment, for example) whenever possible. Clear limits are especially important in such cases; you might also want to suggest that they present their ideas to you for a final OK before they act (or give you a certain amount of time to evaluate their suggestions before you OK them).

• If your kids suggest a choice that you think is inappropriate, tell them your concerns and ask if they can come up with another idea. (Stating “That won’t work for me,” is a terrific way to get this message across without attacking, judging, criticizing, or getting impatient.) Reiterate your criteria if necessary. If something is just plain non-negotiable, say so, but help your kids look for acceptable options available within those limits.

These strategies were adapted from material in The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting, by Dr. Jane Bluestein (2021, Father Sky Publishing, Albuquerque, NM) and The Win-Win Classroom, by Dr. Jane Bluestein (2008, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Publishing, CA).

© 1990, 1997, 2008, 2012, 2021, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Related links:

Guidelines for Reinforcing Cooperation
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Thinking of “Consequences” as the Good Stuff
Guidelines for Handling Your Child’s Negative Behavior
The Challenge of Setting Boundaries

Podcast: Ending the Homework Wars with Susan Fitzell.

Podcast: The Choice is Yours: Connecting the Dots with Dr. Lynn Collins. This podcast is oriented to classroom teachers, however it contains examples and ideas that are applicable to parents.

Book: The Book of Article Reprints
Book: Listas Para Padres: Qué Hacer Y Qué No
Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting
Book: Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line

Audio: Parent Tapes (CDs or mp3 download)

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