“Ollie, do you want to wear your penguin pajamas or your stripey pajamas?”
“Ollie wear pajamas with cars!”
Choice is an important part of developing independence in our son. From before Ollie could really make choices about his clothing I would let him choose between two shirts. At first, I would simply interpret which shirt his eye would go to first as the expression of his opinion, but now that he’s older, he is much more verbal about what he wants.
For those of you with toddlers you may think that the term “verbal” is a euphemism for “dictator-like” and yes, this is the case a lot of the time. Life for toddlers can be very confusing. They understand so much more about their life and their environment every day, but their verbal skills don’t always equip them to interact with the world in a way they would like.
Toddlers don’t have the capacity to understand choices made for them everyday. So they can get a little bossy. You would too if someone was making hundreds of choices for you in your life and you didn’t understand the reasons why.
I believe toddlers like all humans are innately good. I also believe that interacting with the world in a polite and productive way is not innate. Without proper guidance and instruction, toddlers again like all humans can act really rude and annoying running contrary to their innate goodness.
One of our primary jobs as parents is to help our toddlers express themselves in appropriate ways. I believe, (through anecdotal experiences and no research), that kids learn how to polite when they are given the chance to express these opinions.
A toddler is going to express his or her own opinion no matter what you do, so instead of steering way from providing a choice that may lead to a meltdown, lean into giving your kids more choices about things less consequential, to help them feel more control over their lives and get important praise for being polite.
What does this look like? There’s a fair amount of me giving Ollie two choices between something and him choosing an unstated third option. More often than not, I just go for the third option. If Ollie doesn’t want to get into the car, asking him which car he wants to ride in, “mommy’s or daddy’s” will provide a little sense of self-determination that gets him going.
Something new (and amazing) that we’ve started using this week is giving Ollie choice as a way to defuse coming tantrums and combat stubbornness. Example: Ollie insists on Diana reading him a book. It’s my turn to read to him, so Diana leaves the room. Ollie starts melting down, then I quickly give Ollie the choice between too books. He thinks about it, chooses one and settles in my lap. Another example: Ollie was getting upset because Ollie wanted to watch more television, Diana then offered Ollie the choice between two snacks, and he immediately moved his attention to the snacks and settled down.
Choice is a powerful thing. Most adults would rather choose a situation where they have more choices than stick with a situation they feel powerless. Ollie had no power to make that television turn back on, so he picked the path that gave him back some power in a productive way.
If a student is struggling with math, you don't lean away as a teacher and put less attention on math. You lean in and do more math work. Toddlers struggle with making choices and expressing their opinions in a productive way and in order to help our kids through this we need to lean in and provide more productive opportunities for choice, not less.
I'm not advocating letting your child completely run his or her own life, but see what kind of power you can give to your kids while maintaining very necessary controls over your child's life. This may mean that you let your toddler pick their own clothing and wears a horribly mismatched outfit a couple days a week. Ignore the clashing colors and focus on your child's expression. That smile and sense of pride is more beautiful than the most perfectly coordinated outfit.