This is how dinner went the other night in our house. One of my children had finished eating and was still hungry.
Child: “What else can I have?”
Child: “I don’t want strawberries.”
Me, desperately trying to find something for him to eat: “How about grapes or an orange? Or maybe some baby carrots? Or a banana?”
Child leaves the table and tells me an hour later at bedtime that he is still hungry.
Why had he refused my perfectly sensible choices that I had given him? It wasn’t because he doesn’t like fruit or vegetables. He’s perfectly content to sit and eat any of the options placed in front of him. It’s because by giving him so many choices I created anxiety and rather that lean into the anxiety, he escaped. And I ended up with a hungry child at bedtime.
I thought that by giving him lots of options, he would find the perfect food for himself for after dinner. We think that we are craving lots of choices, but in the end, we tend to do better with fewer options in front of us because we become paralyzed by the number of choices in front of us. Instead of being decisive, we start second-guessing our decisions.
When we need our children to make decisions, we can’t put all of the choices in front of them. I recently wrote about needing to design the spaces in which our children make choices. A key element of this is limiting the choices that we place in front of them. For young children, set up an “either… or…” situation. As much as you may want to, don’t give them the third choice. It just muddies the waters. Older children can handle choosing between more options, but again don’t overwhelm them.
The challenge that we as parents face is not just preventing the choice overload of our children; it’s making sure that we are not continually seeking out additional choices to present to them. We need to give ourselves permission to say, “These are your choices.” Fight the urge to continue to present additional options; sit on your hands if you have to! By restricting your child’s choices, you are building your child’s decision making skills and helping them understand limits – skills they will need as adults.