Working With Free Will
How many times have you blamed other people for your feelings and actions? We have all heard parents say things like, "Don't make me tell you again," or "Look what you made me do!" Statements like these imply that the child has power over the adult. Of course, children are not really in control of how adults feel and act; we have free will. Parents, regain your self-control, take ownership of your own feelings, and stop blaming other people for what you do, say, or feel.
When you let go of the idea that other people can make you do or feel a certain way, you also need to let go of the idea that you can make other people do what you want. Our job as parents is not to force and manipulate our children; we need to teach them how to make good choices because this is a skill they will need. Children who have spent their lives being bossed around and threatened with punishment if they don't do what you say will grow up not knowing how to make appropriate choices for themselves; they will not know how to use their own free will. Some people actually advise parents to break their children's will. This is one of the most irresponsible and harmful things a parent can do to their child. Instead, teach your children to use their will appropriately. One way to do this is to give children choices.
False Choices and Positive Choices
Many parents give what Becky Bailey calls "false choices," where they give one preferred choice and one negative choice in order to coerce the child into doing what the parent wants. Positive choices, on the other hand, offer two options that are both equally acceptable to the parent. An example of a false choice would be, "Clean your room or you'll have no TV for a week." Clearly the parent wants the child to choose the first option, and will probably fly off the handle if the child chooses the "false" option of going without TV and not cleaning their room. In contrast, a parent giving a positive choice would focus on what they want to happen and then structure the choice to reflect that. "It's time to clean your room. You can start by picking up the toys or the clothes. Which do you choose?"
When giving positive choices, first you need to focus on what you want your child to do, then give your child a true choice by offering two options that are both acceptable. When the child makes their choice, comment on it in an encouraging voice. "You chose to pick up your dirty clothes first." This comment will make your child aware of his choice and will actually strengthen the frontal lobes of his brain. This is a good thing; the frontal lobes have the capacity to override emotional outbursts and are critical to self-control. Cool, huh? So much better than yelling or giving false choices!
When structuring choices, keep in mind the age and developmental capabilities of your child. For children under five, keep it simple by giving a choice between two things. Older kids can handle less structured choices. Some children do need more structure than others to stay on task, so always be aware of what your child is capable of handling at the time. Additionally, when children are overwhelmed or anxious, asking them to make a choice will only increase their anxiety. At this point, it is better to use assertive commands: "It's time to clean your room; start by putting the toys on the shelves."
Children Who Have Trouble Making Choices
Even as adults, sometimes we have trouble making choices. Children are no different. Those who have trouble making choices fall into three groups.
Those who refuse to make a choice: The child may be overwhelmed due to current circumstances, he may be the type who gets easily overwhelmed, or he may fear making a wrong choice. You can help by calling attention to the choices he does make, offer choices that involve being close to you, and modeling how to forgive yourself and move on when you've made a bad choice.
Those who resist the given structure: When given a choice between A and B, your child may choose C. All children do this occasionally, but those who habitually resist structure are doing so either for developmental reasons or because they have been taught this behavior. Young children go though a developmental stage called "individuation separation" where they learn that they have a separate identity from their parents. When children in this stage resist structured choices, it is because they are trying to figure out where they end and you begin. Other children may resist structured choices because they have learned it is an effective way to get their needs met. This can be the result of permissive parenting, failing to meet a child's needs as early as infancy, or serious family troubles. To learn more about why kids may resist structured choices and how you can help them, see chapter five of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline.
Those who change their minds: This can be the result of stress, in which case they need assertive commands rather than choices. It can also be a learned behavior if the child receives more attention for changing his mind than he does for being cooperative.
Remember that children need to practice making age-appropriate choices; this is a skill that they will need for the rest of their lives. Your job as a parent is to give them positive, structured choices that will help them accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and to encourage them in their choice-making ability. You can do this if you remember to focus on what you want to happen and give choices that are truly acceptable. I encourage you to read Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline for yourself; there is so much helpful information in the book, and I cannot possibly share it all here.