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Limiting Options: Avoid Hearing “No”

January 29, 2014

By Stephen J. West

Peanut butter and jelly and macaroni and cheese

Photo by Libby VanWhy

In the college courses I teach, I ask my students to answer open-ended questions to help them form their personal opinions. While this strategy is great for helping adults learn how to influence the world they live in, I’ve found that it isn’t nearly as productive when it comes to getting my two-year-old son to decide what he wants for lunch.

“No!” my son will often respond, sometimes even before he hears what I’m asking. Like many toddlers, he has a willful personality and prefers to make his own choices. I believe this is a positive attribute, but when “no” becomes his favorite choice for daily rituals like putting his shoes on or brushing his teeth, it can make life difficult.

To embrace my son’s desire to have a say in things while keeping his answers productive, I need to give him more structure than open-ended questions provide. According to Monte W. Davenport, Ph.D, “the determined child desperately wants her parents to be in control; however, she does not want to give up whatever control she has.” This concept helped me understand why the questions I was asking my son were unproductive. Instead of asking, “do you want to eat lunch?” as I usually would, if I rephrased the question as, “do you want peanut-butter and jelly or macaroni and cheese?” my son has control over what he eats while I have control over when he eats.

Providing your child with limited options works great in most scenarios, whether it’s time to take a bath (“do you want bubbles or not in your bath?”) or get dressed to go to school (“do you want to wear your bulldozer shirt or your monkey shirt?”). Using limited options allows you to control the structure of your child’s life while giving him or her the chance to feel control within that structure.

When providing your child with limited options:

Make eye contact. Acknowledgment of the choice emphasizes the structure, and confirms they have a say in the matter.

Provide options you are happy with, and stick to them. Make sure not to offer a choice that you don’t want your child to make. And don’t negotiate! Your child will quickly learn that his or her options aren’t firm if you change or add to them.

Avoid ultimatums. “Or else” isn’t a choice, and children are smart enough to know the difference between a choice and a threat.

When decisions need to be made, giving your child two or three choices provides the power he or she wants and provides you with the control you need.


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