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A little choice goes a long way

Author Bill Bounds
Submitted 14-11-2010

It should come as no surprise to anyone that a primary source for the overall terribleness of the Terrible Twos is that this is the time a child first starts to exercise his independence. He’s coming out of a time where he was totally immobile and depending on his parents for absolutely everything, then somewhat mobile but unsure on his feet. Now that he’s nearly fully mobile, but probably still clumsy, and a bit more independent, he is trying to make decisions for himself and also really starting to gain an appreciation for the world beyond him, his parents and his immediate surroundings. While he may not be specifically thinking it, he’s trying to create some space between him and his parents and figure out his boundaries with the things in his world. Combine this with a near total lack of being able to clearly express himself (except for when he’s furious), and this can be a very frustrating time for a two-year-old.

The irony, of course, is that there’s no way a two-year-old can actually be independent in just about anything. (but good luck telling him that.) He obviously continues to be completely reliant on his parents for anything and everything and without the ability to understand the ramifications of decisions or why his parents must say no from time to time. He is still very much beings driven almost entirely by wants and desires but have little understanding of needs or concept of the things he must do like take naps, baths or get a diaper changed.

Naturally, it’s the mix of being entirely want-driven in a world where needs or whims of those in charge (aka, parents) overrule those wants that causes children to express their terribleness.  In our house, we’ve come to call this a melt-down. Or, in the very worst examples, a nuclear meltdown.

Given our daughter entered the terrible phase well before her second birthday, I’ve been thinking for some time now about how we can help get through this phase in a way that preserves as much of our sanity as possible. In the past few months, I’ve started a simple process that’s proving, so far, to be a significant help: Offer choices, even if only small ones.   

I know this sounds pretty basic, but if you haven’t stopped to think about it yet, you may not have realized how few choices your child has in his day-to-day dealings and he may be crying out (or screaming out) for any choice, no matter how small, to make him more independent and more his own person.

For our daughter, Aleesia, offering choices has been pretty simple. It’s the little things like picking out three outfits for her to wear and letting her choose between them, asking if she wants juice or water for dinner, letting her pick out which sleeping clothes to wear or what we’ll use to put her up hair. We’ll also ask her in the mornings to choose between two things for breakfast and she’ll tell us which she wants. I call this “structured choice.”

Giving her these small choices helps her deal with the significantly higher number of things she doesn’t get a choice in, like what she can’t do to the dog, why she can’t wave a fork wildly around, what we’re having for dinner, or whether or not to take a nap or get her diaper changed.  By the way, speaking of getting her to be okay with having her diaper changed, here’s a little tip for you: When she’s putting up a fuss about having to get her diaper changed, I pick up two or three, each with different cartoon Sesame Street characters on it and ask her which one she wants. Amazing how that simple act gets her to understand it’s time for a diaper change and be okay with it.

So, I’m not for a moment going to tell you that giving your two-year-old the choice between water and juice is going to completely eliminate temper tantrums in your house, but it will eliminate some of them. And no, these choices don’t even always work in the same situations. The temper tantrums will still be there because, like Aleesia, your two-year-old will still want to do things to the dog you don’t want, or wave a fork wildly around or whatever they’re doing that, if let go, would end up in a visit to a hospital. More importantly and more to the point, however, is that I believe these early, simple choices give them an opportunity to start being their own person and they create a foundation for the two-year-old to start making choices on their own later, when those choices matter more.