The Reasonable Choices Method

choicesI have these friends who are really excellent parents. To observe them is to learn. One of the methods they use with their young children is what I like to call The Reasonable Choices Method, a simple idea but one that requires a lot of internal patience even when things are just pure chaos around you. As a prerequisite you must be on your way to mastering the 3C’s in a parenting crisis: Calm, Cool, and Collected.

Here’s how it’s done: Two-year-old Ben is playing with his toys in the playroom and you notice it’s now 7:00 pm, thirty-minutes before bedtime, and you still need to give him a bath to wash off the sand from all of his sandbox adventures today, his sidewalk chalk mishaps, and the milk that spilled when he attempted to grab the cup from the counter but sadly missed. You give Ben a heads up that it will be time to take a bath in 5 minutes and you set the timer for 5 minutes, making sure to show him (as evidence) on your phone, kitchen timer, or even those little sand timers found in a board game. When there’s one minute left of playtime you give him a courtesy warning. By giving him this courtesy warning you’re really allowing him to prepare himself to switch tasks. Remember that a toddler’s brain is developing the ability to process information at a faster rate and creating those memory synapses so he needs a little more time to prepare himself to do something else. Emotionally, he’s also learning to assert his independence and this is a good thing. However, it’s still important to rein it in, molding his ability to make decisions within the confines of safe parameter.

When the timer has gone off you announce again that it’s time to clean-up and take a bath. If Ben is like most two-year-olds he will resist, explaining that he needs more time because he’s not finished playing. If you really think about his argument it is easy to understand. We all run behind at times: finishing a paper at the last-minute, remembering a birthday card on the way to the party, not realizing that dinner will take a little longer tonight because we’re trying a new dish. Although his request for more time is understandable toddlers are notorious for saying one thing and doing another. Remember that this is not a negotiation, this is a teaching moment–an example of how you are helping him learn to sustain a commitment and begin to make the right decisions. An assertive yet loving response should outline the fact that you understand his wants but you have given him a specific set of tasks to complete for the next part of the evening: “I understand that you want more time to finish playing but the timer has gone off and it is now time to clean-up, go upstairs, and take a bath”. It is likely he will still resist and so at this moment, while you’re helping to clean-up, you say to him, “Ben you may walk upstairs yourself or I can carry you upstairs. Which do you prefer?” Here it is: a Reasonable Choice–one where each option is something you can live with, gets the next task going, but allows him a way to begin to assert his independence.

If he says, “I need more time” calmly explain that he already had 5 minutes to prepare himself to take a bath and that you will make the choice for him if he is unable to make it himself. Then, follow through! I cannot stress enough that this the step I coach families most on. No doubt it is the most difficult step and I feel for you because when your child is on the floor having a tantrum it is heart-wrenching and frustrating at the same time. Use those 3C’s and realize the psychology of what is happening here: Ben is wrestling to understand his own ability to make the right decision. Your job is to help him understand why it is important and assure him that by trusting you, his parent, it will bring about the best decision possible.

The key is to employ your 3C’s, be consistent, and follow-through. Don’t beat yourself up if you get it wrong the first few times. Just keep trying! You are helping your child build character and learn to make the right choice, a skill that he will use for the rest of his life.

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