By Dr Kathryn Murray
Has there ever been a time in your house where you feel like you are talking to yourself when asking your children to do something? Do you feel like a recording asking children to have a shower, do their homework, put their clothes away, pack up their toys? It’s exhausting!
Often children won’t comply or ignore us because they feel that they have no power in the situation. I have found that by offering a realistic and legitimate choice to children that they feel empowered and are happy to comply with what we are asking them to do. It all comes down to the way we present our expectations.
Research suggests that all of us want to feel that we have some control over our lives. This is a basic need and if it’s not fulfilled, then rebellion, anger, and even revenge can occur. Think of people who live in a country stringently controlled by the military or government. Eventually, there is rebellion and protesting. We have seen this across the world with protests against Covid-19 restrictions. Basically, people get sick of being told what to do!
In a family situation, we can achieve our outcomes by asking for compliance in a different way. Offering a choice empowers the child and gives them autonomy and independence to make decisions that affect their lives. This also teaches children to accept consequences which is extremely important as they get older.
You may be thinking, ‘If I give a choice then nothing will get done!’ It’s all about the type of choice you give and how it’s offered. The outcome must align with your goals, for example, you want your child to put away their freshly washed and folded clothes. You could say, ‘Here are your clothes, do you want to put away the t-shirts or the shorts first?’ It’s a legitimate question, your goal is being met and your child gets to choose. My bet is that they will choose one of the options and follow through. This is a ‘win-win’ situation.
The key here is to already have some common choices in your head so that you can think in the heat of the moment, and you will tend to say them calmly, in a matter-of-fact way. ‘Will you brush your teeth or put your pyjamas on first?’ The order doesn’t matter to you, only the outcome. But to your child, they are being offered autonomy, empowerment, choice, responsibility, and independence. Again, it’s a ‘win-win’.
If offering choices is a new approach in your house, then there may be some confusion at first. You may have to say something like “You can choose what you’re going to do first. It’s fine with me”. If you still get refusal to cooperate then offer the choice twice and tell your child that if they can’t choose, then you will have to choose for them. If you have to make the choice, you must follow through. You will only need to do this once or twice until your child decides that they would rather choose for themselves!
I have used this approach with my own 4 children and with 1000’s of children in my classrooms. The research, my personal experience, and the experiences of 1000s of parents who have tried this approach prove that when we give children contained and structured empowerment, they are more likely to cooperate happily.