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Choice Theory

Children are often defiant and parents find it very frustrating and difficult to get children to obey without resorting to a battle of the wills. Choice Theory allows for parents to completely eliminate arguments with children about compliance, while encouraging children to develop important skills.

Children do not like to be told what to do… actually, none of us do. It is very easy to tell children to “Eat your vegetables” or “Clean your room”, and then get angry and yell when it is not completed. Giving children a choice gives you more control than you might think, because you are the one who decides what the choices will be.

For example, it would be foolish to give most children a choice between doing their homework and watching television, but how about letting them decide whether they’ll do spelling and then math, or the other way around? There could be other choices after homework is completed. I’m not suggesting unlimited choices, just the ones you think are appropriate for the occasion. While it leaves you in control, it also gives the child the feeling that he has some rights.

Expanding this into discipline, children respond well when they are given a choice of appropriate, expected behavior or a punishment. If children are allowed to continue with a behavior until it is out of control and then are forced to stop by a parent, they will never learn to self-regulate. The child learns that someone will intervene when something gets out of control relinquishing them from the responsibility.

By threatening, “If you talk back again, I am going to make you go to bed”, for example, the parent communicates that the child is under their control. Choice Theory requires that the child makes the decision, in “If you choose to talk back to me, then you choose to go to bed”. The child learns to accept responsibility for his actions. The key component of this being effective is following through with the consequence no matter what.

You can also implement Choice Theory for deciding what a punishment will be after a child chooses to be punished. Would the child rather miss TV for a night or two, be grounded, or go to bed early? As before, the options are up to you, but the child gets to choose. However, be ready to accept the child’s choice as final, assuming that it is appropriate. In other words, don’t give a choice if there really is no choice and you’re going to force the child to do what you want anyway.

Obviously, it is not necessary or practical to follow this procedure every time, but it can make a big difference in your relationship with the child and also help his/her self-esteem if you let them choose on a regular basis. Certainly there will be times when your child will not be able to choose, when your judgment as a parent will have to suffice, but these times should be balanced with choices the child can make.

Life involves decision-making. Many children grow up unable to make decisions intelligently simply because they have had so little experience doing so. Parents and teachers told them what to do and when to do it. Try giving your children choices instead of orders. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.

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  • Beccy

    I stumbled across this article whilst trying to look up what to do for my five year old. We have always given him a choice when his behaviour slips, e.g he can choose to be a good boy and eat his dinner or if he doesn’t then he is choosing to face the consequences (time out/removal of favourite things etc). This used to work really well but now he either says he doesn’t know what choice to make, or worse, says he wants to choose the punishment! This baffles us and then escalates because there’s no logic behind this for us to know how to stop it. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

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