By Mary Follin and Kristi Crosson
I’ve always heard how important it is to let children make their own decisions about little things, which I try to do with my 3-year-old daughter. (What shirt to wear to school, if she wants to go to the park, etc.) But it feels like it’s backfiring on me! She takes forever to make a decision! It’s not so bad if I have all the time in the world, but I usually don’t. She also becomes resistant to anything I suggest and even throws tantrums when she can’t have her way. Help!
Let’s pretend you’re 3 years old and you’re trying to figure out what to have for breakfast—oatmeal or eggs. Your job is to pick one. Hmmm. Oatmeal fills me up, but it doesn’t have quite enough protein to get me through my morning run. Or: Eggs sound good, but my cholesterol is a bit high, and I’ve already had eggs twice this week.
Oh, wait. You’re 3, remember? I love oatmeal! Can I have raisins? Last time I didn’t get any, and Joey did! Joey got a new hat! Eggs match my shirt! I love yellow! Eggs drip on my shirt! I don’t like that! I’m not hungry! I want a cookie!
Now throw in a bowl of cereal, and you can imagine what your daughter goes through each time she has to make a decision, and why it ends up looking the way it does.
When children are very young, they need trusted adults to show them how to make decisions. A 3-year-old doesn’t want to be in charge—it’s too scary! As adults, we make decisions all day long, so it’s easy to forget this skill needs to be taught.
Your daughter’s ability to make her own decisions will mature after watching you make them for her. Instead of presenting multiple options, offer her one and tell her why you’ve chosen it: “We’re having oatmeal today because it’s cold outside and it will warm you up!” Gradually, she’ll ‘get it’ after watching you, and she will be able to make her own decisions with confidence—and without tantrums.
I’m right in the thick of things with my threenager. If your kids are like mine, they say they want something one way, then change their minds moments later. It drives me crazy! And honestly, it feels like it’ll never end. While he’s learning to exert his independence, I get to listen to “No, I don’t want that,” when in fact he actually does.
Too many choices are overwhelming for young children, who are impulsive by nature. If you offer them multiple options, it can lead to overwhelm and meltdowns. Particularly if you’re in a hurry. You can’t expect your child to move at a quicker pace when presented with three or more hair ribbons to choose from.
Here’s a good system for helping your child make decisions, using ‘what to wear’ as an example. For starters, only offer two choices. Don’t say: “What do you want to wear?” Instead try: “Would you like the pink shirt or the one with unicorns?” Second, make both choices sound exciting. And finally, give them a minute to think about it.
If they refuse to decide after you give them enough time, then it’s your turn. Say something like: “I know I said you could pick, but now it’s Mommy’s turn. I pick the unicorns.” Hand your child the clothes and help her change. It may not work the first few times, but you’ll both get the hang of it with practice.
If you have a question for Mary and Kristi, we’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org.