How can you encourage autonomy and minimize power struggles with your children?
There are several reasons that giving children choices throughout the day is beneficial, even crucial to their development:
- A Feeling of Control
- Building Self-Esteem
- Cognitive Development
- Moral Development
- Accepting Responsibility
- Minimizing Conflicts
- Maximizing Learning
- How to Offer Choices
Choices offered to young children must be legitimate and meaningful to them and acceptable to adults. When Ms. Lee confronted two children fighting over the same ride-on truck, she said, “You two can figure out how to share that truck, or go to time out.” Since neither child relished the thought of sitting in what amounts to solitary confinement in the time out chair, this was not a legitimate choice. Each option must have equal weight in the child’s eyes. She might have said, “You can use the truck together, or I can help one of you find another truck to use.”
Later in the day when Ms. Lee said, “It’s time to clean up, OK?” she unknowingly offered children the option of cleaning up or continuing to play by adding “OK?” to the end of her sentence. She actually meant that it was nearly time to go home and they must put toys and materials away. She had not intended to give children a choice and was unable to allow them to continue to play because it was in fact time to get ready to leave.
Limiting choices for young children helps them select (Morrison, 1997). In a restaurant with many menu options even adults have difficulty choosing their meal. It may be easier for a child to choose if we suggest she decide between the art table and the block corner than from all the activities available in the classroom. Younger children manage better with fewer options.
Making direct suggestions may help the hesitant child to make a choice. Children whose parents make decisions for them may be overwhelmed by a situation in which they are now expected to choose for themselves. They need time, support, and practice as well as patient teachers to help them learn this skill.
By offering children choices we are not giving them complete control of the classroom or the curriculum. Since children may choose only from the alternatives offered, the teacher maintains control of what the options are. Juan may want to choose the water table every day, but on the days Ms. Anderson does not put it out, he must choose something else.
No Choice Situations
Each of us must deal with situations in which we have no choice. We are required to obey laws, for instance. Children, too, must learn that sometimes they have a choice. Issues of safety allow no leeway for individual preference (Gordon & Browne, 1996). Children may not play with the burner controls on the stove while helping to make cookies. When time is an issue they may have to stop playing and clean up, or get dressed for school so Mom and Dad can get to work on time. After the adults have made the primary decision, however, children can make secondary ones. They may choose to pour in the sugar or crack the eggs for the cookies. They can select the red or the green plaid shirt to wear. When children know they will be given sufficient opportunities to choose for themselves, they are more willing to accept those important “no choice” decisions adults must make for them.
The wise teacher understands that children make choices all day long, whether adults want them to or not. They choose to obey, ignore, or defy rules and directions and determine for themselves whether to speak kindly or angrily to others. They decide whether school or child care is a good place to be. Our task is to provide children with appropriate, healthful options and help them to make and accept their choices. In this way, we are developing confident, independent children who feel in control of themselves.
Adapted from Sue Grossman Ph. D.
Eileen Dummer MA, LPCC
Hutchinson, Willmar, Minnetonka, Redwood Falls