Heart Pondering

The ponderings of one Christ-following mom on raising preschoolers

Children and choices April 6, 2009

Filed under: Authority & obedience,Bible,Books,Choices,Culture — Susan @ Christian Mothering @ 10:14 pm

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less is a book that argues convincingly that our society’s “overwhelming abundance of choice” in every arena – from clothes to foods to career to 401Ks – is less helpful than we’d imagine.  “Beware of choice overload,” the back cover summary reads, ” (as) too much of a good thing has proven detrimental to our emotional and pyschological well-being.”  Provocative read; I recommend it.

As I’ve been reflecting on it, I think the same basic concept may well apply with our toddlers and preschoolers.

When my husband and I first confronted the fact that we needed to make some changes in parenting our son, then 2 3/4 years old, we realized that we offered him numerous choices throughout the day.  From beverage options to shoe selection to activity-related decisions, he was allowed to pick (usually) one of two offered choices.  This in part seemed logical as his verbal skills improved and in part was absorbed by the parenting norms we saw around us.  It’s virtually a foregone conclusion in child-rearing today that offering kids choices is a good idea, helps them learn to make decisions, and lets them feel in control of their worlds.  Offering limited choices is often recommended, enabling parents to ultimately direct them to something that needs to occur.  (“Do you want to put your pj’s on before or after you brush your teeth?”  Either way the kid is brushing teeth and putting on PJ’s).

But in our case, we found that our son had grown accustomed to weighing in on choices throughout the day and had begun to assume that decision-making was basically his perrogative.  He whined, tantrumed, and protested frequently, and part of the problem was that he felt he should be in control and therefore wasn’t willing to  take input from us.  We had ourselves fostered this sense in him, and we needed to change course.

Our culture values autonomy and individuality a great deal, and values respect for authority and obedience very little.  So, as I’ve discussed before, it’s not surprising to see parenting modes reflecting this.  But the biblical call for us Christian parents to foster obedience and respect in our children is clear and prevalent.  Does this mean that children should never be offered choices?  Of course not.  But it does mean that teaching our children to obey and accept our (God-given, benelovent) authority over them should be primary.

Something interesting happened with our son when we began to limiting the choices we offered him and requiring him to obey us when he directed him.  He became happier.  Not just more compliant, but noticeably, visibly more cheerful – even relaxed.  It was as if there were a pressure on him from making decisions all day – decisions that he really wasn’t mature enough to make in many cases – and it was a relief to be told, and then expected, to follow the lead of someone in charge.  He simply didn’t have the maturity to handle all the freedoms we’d been giving him. It reinforced for my husband and me the sense of security that a child feels when his parents provide clear direction as established leaders.

We won’t do our children any favors in the long run if we build autonomy and independence into them at the expense of  their learning how to accept appropriate, respectful authority.  [After all, God asks all of us to submit to His authority, and part of our job as parents is to train our children toward this end.]  Ted Tripp observes that today, the majority of parents “give away their authority, piece by piece, by the time their children are school age.”  How?  Through a thousand small transactions like choosing meals, utensils, cups, clothes at every turn – leading the child to reasonably conclude that he’s running his own life.

So perhaps offering young children choices should happen on a much more limited scale than many parents today employ.  Our current practice with our son, now three and a half, is to offer him choices on select things throughout the day – held out in the context of authority clearly conveying that Mom and Dad are still in charge.  If one of the two choices isn’t accepted, then we select and enforce one ourselves.  If and when we see whining and protestation increase, we scale back the offering of the choice in that arena until our son once again demonstrates his capability to cheerful accept our authority.  The expansion of choices grows on that basis.

A wise friend of mine, mother to four kids six and under, summarized this for me well: 

“A toddler or preschooler should not have choices for every little thing, but a few well-chosen ones throughout the day work well.  Having too many choices not only overwhelms and stresses a small child, but also slows things down too much, opens up room for arguments and tantrums, and doesn’t ensure that he can and will respect and submit to you simply for being the parents and the authorities (under God’s authority).”


5 Responses to “Children and choices”

  1. Kate Says:

    Brilliant! I’ve never thought about the idea of giving my child choices in this way, but it makes so much sense.

  2. Joellawme Says:

    Thanks. I needed to read this– especially after the last few days, which have not be cheerful, to say the least.

  3. Sarae Martin Says:

    I just had a conversation about choices with a friend. It was in the context of clothing choices for a 2 1/2 year old. She was commenting on how it is a battle to get her child dressed because she never wants to put on what is been picked out.

    I encouraged her to look at choices as a priviledge that is earned by the child. Choices are not the right of a toddler.

    My kids that are 5, 7, and 9 pick out their own clothes and make their own choices of what to wear because they have earned that right…and shown that they can make good choices. They have also shown me that they will wear what I ask if there are situations where I need to guide them in clothing choices (i.e. church, weddings etc.).

    My three year old and my 1 year old have not earned that right. There are days that I allow my 3 year old to choose, but for the most part, right now, she is learning to submit to authority completely, without delay and without complaint.

    This applies to many areas of parenting: mealtime, what color cup to drink out of, what to do with free time, etc.

  4. heartpondering Says:


    Thanks so much for your input – particularly valuable in light of a larger family and your experience across years. Your comment about the notion of choices being privileges that are earned once cheerful acceptance of parental authority is gained perfectly describes the gist of what I was trying to get at with: “If and when we see whining and protestation increase, we scale back the offering of the choice in that arena until our son once again demonstrates his capability to cheerful accept our authority. The expansion of choices grows on that basis.” The display of inacceptance of authority is the demonstration that the child isn’t ready for – hasn’t yet earned – that privilege.


  5. Sarae Martin Says:

    My Confession: I didnt’ read to the end because my example came and I didn’t want to lose it…or be interrupted by a small being! So I quick wrote it without fully reading. Can you say “BUSTED.” 🙂

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