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Would You Like an Apple or a Banana? Why Offering Toddlers Choices Is Important
By Sandra Crosser Ph. D.

Competencies for Choices Article

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competency that can be used for this article is:

• To support social and emotional development and to provide positive guidance.

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310.

This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability area:

• The ability to enhance children’s social and emotional development.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161.

“Would you like an apple or a banana?” Klaire’s teacher asks. It is important to have a choice. It is especially important for Klaire to have a choice because Klaire is two. Why is it so important for a two year old to choose her snack? It is not particularly important whether Klaire chooses the apple or the banana. What is important is that she is given a real choice.            

When a person is two there are many “you may nots.” You may not: stay home alone, eat when you want, cross the street by yourself, lock the bathroom door, turn on the water, stay inside while the other children go outside, go to bed when you are ready, skip wearing boots, get yourself an aspirin, buy a guinea pig, or open the refrigerator. Because there are so many things a two year old may not be permitted to do simply because of safety or health precautions, it is difficult for two's to feel control in their lives. But this is exactly the time that a child needs to develop a sense of autonomy…a sense that he is an independent and competent individual in his own right.

Making Choices Is Important

One of the best ways to develop a sense of autonomy is to make choices. When we make our own choices we feel a sense of control. With repeated opportunities to make our own decisions we begin to think of ourselves as in control of at least parts of our lives. According to Erik Erikson (1963), two year olds need to feel a sense of control in order to develop healthy personalities. Because two's are particularly into control issues, we commonly hear stories about the terrible two's and children who love to say “no;” two's who fear loss of control (particularly of bathroom habits); and two's who have learned how to manipulate parents and run the show at home. It is all a matter of control.           

David Elkind (1994) suggests that the two-year-old who appears to be strong-willed is actually striving to establish himself as an independent person different from his parents and others. As the child asserts himself, he is building a healthy identity. The child is seeking independence, and the frequently heard, “I want to do it myself!” is evidence of the child’s growing need to define himself as a separate and unique person. Twos naturally want to choose for themselves. As they choose, they begin to walk the long road toward behavioral autonomy, which Sessa & Steinberg (1991) believe is important in learning to regulate one’s own behavior.           

Klaire’s teacher knows that it is important for Klaire to make choices in her life so that she will feel some sense of control, which contributes to healthy personality development by building up a sense of autonomy. This teacher realizes that by giving Klaire authentic, limited choices, she is building Klaire’s confidence in herself. She is also eliminating much of the negativity often associated with the age. Klaire feels in control by making choices like what type of snack she’ll have. That growing sense of control reduces the child’s need to try to gain control in negative ways. But those choices must be authentic.

 

What are Authentic Choices?

An authentic choice is real. The child’s choice matters. If the child chooses the apple, we don’t serve them the banana instead. Have you ever overheard an adult give a child a false choice? False choices are no choice at all. False choices happen when the teacher asks the children if they want to do an art project or sing a song when, in fact, she expects everyone to participate. When offering a child a choice, the adult needs to respect the child’s decision. Don’t ask, “Do you want to…” unless you are prepared for a “no” answer.           

Playtime is a perfect opportunity to offer children choices about what they will do, for how long, and with whom. Teachers who offer children the options of working in blocks, paint, puzzles, or dramatic play are taking advantage of using developmentally appropriate curriculum to build emotional competence. When teachers do not set limits on which centers children must visit or how long they must work in any given center, they feel the freedom to decide for themselves. The child experiences the satisfaction of making a decision that has real consequences for his life.    

 

Is it Practical to Offer Many Choices to Young Children? Won’t They Become Overwhelmed?

Yes, toddlers can become overwhelmed by too many options. Choices need to be limited. For example, the child may decide whether he wants to read a story before his nap or after his nap. He may decide which of three stories he would like read. He may select four toys to sleep with. He may decide which of two blankets he prefers and may select which of two CDs he’d like to listen to as he drifts off to sleep.           

Reasonable parameters need to be set. When the adult makes two or three suggestions from which the child may choose, we know that the child’s choice can be honored. For example, the teacher may outlaw rowdy play while describing three or four acceptable alternatives from which children may choose. Sometimes adults need to tell children that there is no choice. When safety or health is at risk, it is important for the adult to say, “Now it is my turn to choose for all of us.” Adults can also help children learn to live and work in harmony by defining for them which actions are not choices. Throwing sand, for example, is not a choice. Children may choose to play in the sand without throwing it or they may choose something else to do. In addition, hitting and name-calling are not acceptable choices.

 

How do Teachers and Parents Offer Choices to Toddlers?

While it may be easier for the adult to make a choice for the child, it is well worth the effort it takes to provide children with the opportunity to take pride in their ability to make independent choices. Look for opportunities in all of the everyday aspects of life. Can the child choose which pair of socks or shirt to wear when given a few options? Could the teacher offer a rainbow of colored paper at the art table? Could the children decide which songs to sing today? Could there be two options for snack? Could there be several colors of play dough or paint available? Could two teachers each offer a story choice? Would you like one cracker or two crackers? Could the children decide which way we’ll take our walk today? Children can also be offered options about when or in which order they prefer to do activities. This is particularly helpful when there is no option about what to do, but there is a choice about when to do it. For example, children may choose whether they would like to play outdoors before or after rest time.

 

What are the Other Benefits to Offering Children Choices?

The best way to learn to ride a bicycle is to ride one. The best way to learn to play a musical instrument is to practice. The best way to learn to ski is to get out on the slopes. The best way to learn how to make good choices is to make lots of choices and learn what it means to live with the consequences of one’s decisions.           

Our lives are defined by the choices we make. Our choices drive us forward, stall us, or hold us back. We need to learn how to make good choices that will give our lives impetus that will be positive and productive. We need to learn how to make choices that will benefit and build up. The best way to help children learn to make wise choices is to start early, when the choices are inconsequential. It does not matter much if we choose the apple or the banana. However, the opportunity to make that choice brings with it a most important life lesson. If we have the apple, we are stuck with the apple. We can’t change our mind and exchange it for a banana. Our decisions have consequences. Children need to live with the consequences of their choices. That is how they will learn to think through their decisions and be prepared to live with their choices.            

If children learn to live with their decisions when they are small, and if they are given many, many opportunities to make choices as they are growing up, then it is more likely that they will be able to make wise decisions when they are older, when the consequences can bring repercussions much more serious than apple or banana. Practice can improve decision-making ability just as it can improve reading ability.

 

Can Parents Help Their Children Become Good Decision Makers?

Baumrind (1991) described the basic styles of parenting. Some ways of socializing children appear to facilitate the development of positive personality traits such as the ability to decide the merit of a behavior and make a wise choice. Baumrind’s studies of preschool children and their family interactions led to the identification of three distinct styles of parenting, each with its own implications for the child’s developing character. It seems that parenting style can facilitate or interfere with development of certain child behaviors.           

The three major parenting styles are labeled authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative (Baumrind, 1971; 1996). While many factors have been associated with personality development, it appears that the characteristic pattern of interaction between parent and child plays an important role. Each parenting style seems to be associated with particular behavior patterns in children. While it would be frivolous to assume that the parent’s general manner of interaction is the only factor in personality development, it does play a major role. As we look at the three parenting styles we can see the importance of offering children choices.

 

Authoritarian

The authoritarian style is exemplified by the adult focus on control. The authoritarian parent sets high standards and demands compliance. Statements such as, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out!” “Why? Because I said so!” are not uncommon for a parent with this style. Much of the interaction in an authoritarian style is top down with one-way communication and common interactions using adult directives: “Pick up your toys.” “Go brush your teeth.” It’s the Archie Bunker style in the extreme. If the child does not comply, punishment will likely result and that punishment may be harsh. Authoritarian parents are like despots. They may love their children dearly, but are usually not openly warm and demonstrative. There are not many hugs. There are high and rigid standards. Obedience is required. Children raised by authoritarian parents tend to be distrustful, discontented, withdrawn, and have difficulty making wise decisions. Preschoolers with authoritarian parents tend to lack self-control and resist adult efforts at correction (Kochanska & Askan, 1995).           

When adults make all of the decisions, children are denied the opportunity to practice making choices and live with the consequences. It is hard to learn from one’s mistakes when there is so little opportunity to make them. As a result, children grow into uncertain, anxious youth who have difficulty deciding the merits of behavior (Weiss & Schwarz, 1996).

 

Permissive

While the authoritarian style is adult-centered, the permissive style may be too child-centered (Darling, 1999). Permissive, indulgent parenting lacks standards and emphasizes self-expression. Parents may be warm and demonstrative, but they set so few guidelines that children become anxious and lack self-assurance. Preschoolers with permissive parents tend to be particularly immature. They have difficulty following rules and seem to believe that rules apply to others, not to themselves. These children may make unlimited choices, but without parameters and feedback.           

Children raised by permissive negligent parents (Maccoby & Martin, 1983) are also given too many inappropriate choices. The permissive, negligent parent is focused on her own needs, rather than the needs of the child who may be seen as a nuisance – “Do whatever you want. I don’t care. Can’t you see I’m watching television?” Choices are many but they may not be offered appropriately or within the context of high expectations. Preschoolers, in particular, respond with noncompliant behaviors when adults in their lives do try to set limits (Miller, Cowan, Cowan, Hetherington, & Clingempeel, 1993).

 

Authoritative

The authoritative parenting style combines warmth with high standards. The adult assumes responsibility for ultimate control but shares decision-making. The child is invited to two-way communication. Interaction may be characterized by respect, negotiation, and reasoning (Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991). Rather than relying on harsh punishment, the authoritative adult sets high expectations that are realistic for the child and explains that it is necessary to make wrongs right again – perhaps allowing for the natural consequences of an act to play out. Standards are realistic. Rules are consistently enforced. Parents blend control with encouragement. Realistic and limited choices are offered. Then the child’s decisions are respected. The child is required to live with the consequences of her decisions.           

Children raised by authoritative parents tend to be self-reliant, independent, content, and self-controlled. They are generally better at making wise choices, even into adolescence because they internalize a set of positive social skills (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994).

 

Other Factors That Impact Parenting

Baumrind’s description of parenting styles reflects the dominant Western view and may be misleading. Cultural factors may influence parenting style, too. According to Chao (1994), for example, Asian-American parenting may combine the control elements of the authoritarian style with the warmth of the authoritative style, but without the authoritative emphasis on individuality and choice. There is also evidence that a “no nonsense” style may be used by parents who see a need to protect the child from a potentially hostile living environment where more adult control is necessary for safety reasons (Brody & Flor, 1998). By necessity, the environment in which children are growing up may affect the parenting style that can be used. In some instances, then, it may not be possible to offer children as many choices as might be desired. Parents would need to be creative in looking for opportunities to offer their children safe choices.

 

Do Choices Undermine Adult Authority?

Certainly children need the assurance that adults can be trusted to make decisions that will keep them safe and secure. It is the adult who determines which choices are safe and wise to offer the child. The adult maintains the ultimate responsibility, but relinquishes some of the decision-making power to children at appropriate times. Adults need to be aware that when they offer children authentic, appropriate choices they are contributing to the child’s positive personality development.

 

Conclusion

As teachers and caregivers interact with children in their charge, they are impacting the child’s developing sense of autonomy. By providing children with the opportunities to make choices and live with the results of their choices, all adults can help children to become wise decision-makers.

 _________________________________________________________________________________

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is a Professor of Education at Ohio Northern University in Ada, OH.

 

References

Baumrind, D. (1971). Harmonious parents and their preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 41, 92-1002. 

Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11 (1), 56-95. 

Baumrind, D. (1996). The discipline controversy revisited. Family Relations, 45, 405-414. 

Brody, G.H. & Flor, D.L. (1998). Maternal resources, parenting practices, and child competence in rural single-parent African American families. Child Development, 69, 803-816. 

Chao, R.K. (1994). Beyond parental control and authoritarian parenting style: Understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of training. Child Development, 65, 1111-1119. 

Darling, N. (1999). Parenting Style and its Correlates. Eric Digest. Champaign IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. 

Elkind, D. (1994). A sympathetic understanding of the child. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon. 

Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and Society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton. 

Grusec, J.E. & Goodnow, J.J. (1994). Impact of parental discipline methods on the child’s internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view.  Developmental Psychology, 30, 4-19. 

Kochanska, G. & Askan, N. (1995). Mother-child mutually positive affect, the quality of child compliance to requests and prohibitions, and maternal control as correlates of early internalization. Child Development, 66, 236-254. 

Lamborn, S.D., Mounts, N.S., Steinberg, I., & Dornbusch, S.M. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustments among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development, 62, 1049-1065. 

Maccoby, E. and Martin, J. (1983). Socialization in the context of the family: Parent-child interaction. In P.H. Mussen (Series Ed.) & E.M. Hetherington (Vol. Ed.) Handbook of child psychology: Vol 4. Socialization 

Miller, N.B., Cowan, P.A., Cowan, C.P., & Hetherington, E.M., and Clingempeel (1993). Externalizing in preschoolers and early adolescents: A cross-study replication of a family model. Developmental Psychology, 29(1), 3-18. 

Sessa, F.M. & Steinberg, L. (1991). Family structure and the development of autonomy during adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11, 38-55. 

Weiss, L.H., & Schwarz, J.C. (1996). The relationship between parenting types and older adolescents personality, academic achievement, adjustment, and substance use. Child Development, 67(5), 2101-2114.