Toddler Choices: How to Give (Limited) Control

We all know toddlers can be incredibly specific in their demands. Sandwiches have to be cut in triangles, socks can’t be balled together, only blue shirts can grace their body, etc. That is because toddlers are getting their sense of order. But how in the world are you supposed to keep all of these arbitrary “rules” straight? You do that by giving your toddler choices. Here is why and how to give your toddler choices. (Once you read about giving toddlers choices, make sure you hop over and read the other ways I deal with a stubborn toddler.)

Giving a toddler choices will help give them the (limited) control they need in their lives. But too many parents take it to one extreme or another. Read on for tips and tricks on how to give your toddler choices. quirkyandthenerd.com

In general, I have a problem with adults who treat children (toddlers especially) like they are totally incompetent animals. Children may be young and they may be confusing and illogical, but they are still people. They deserve our respect and some (limited) control over their own lives.

I have had parents on both extremes of giving their children choices. Some were not letting their children choose anything while others were letting them choose everything. I can guarantee you that if you don’t give your toddler control, they will find some. You can’t make a toddler eat, sleep, or use the bathroom and if you are limiting the control they have in their lives, they will probably choose to control one of those things. I have seen it happen many times. (Of course, lack of control isn’t the only reason toddlers will choose to control those things; I just see many, choiceless toddlers skipping naps or being picky eaters because of their lack of control. On the other hand, my daughter part-time bed shares with us and she has plenty of opportunities to make choices.)

There is a happy medium and you have to adjust it as the child ages. The choices you will give an 8-year-old, such as wearing a hat to school on a cool autumn day, is not a choice you would give a toddler.

Things to Let a Toddler Choose

  • Elements of their snack or meal (the fruit or veggie choice, milk or water, etc. Don’t make food a fight.)
  • Their outfit
  • A show to watch
  • A book to read
  • Where to sit at the library

Things Toddlers Shouldn’t Choose

  • When to leave a fun place (the park, zoo, a birthday party, etc.)
  • Whether they should go to the doctor
  • Anything minor if you are in a rush
  • Pre-planned outings (errands, vacations, family visits, etc.)

Limit the Choices

Letting your toddler choose what they wear doesn’t mean letting them go wild in their closet. Not only would you probably never leave the house that day, your toddler would still be naked come bedtime. Too many choices are overwhelming for them. Heck, too many choices are overwhelming for me as an adult.

Instead, let them choose between two or three shirts and pants. That way you have already made sure they are weather and school appropriate. Toddlers will be easily overwhelmed. Two or three choices is plenty. I usually stick with two unless there is a reason to add another.

Letting your toddler have a choice gives them some control in their own lives.

Giving a toddler choices will help give them the (limited) control they need in their lives. But too many parents take it to one extreme or another. Read on for tips and tricks on how to give your toddler choices. quirkyandthenerd.com

Make Them Equal

It definitely isn’t fair to a child or to you if the “choices” you are giving them aren’t equal. Don’t offer a banana or a cupcake for snack. The toddler is going to choose the cupcake and you will get frustrated because they aren’t having a healthy snack.

Now, I know that is a totally extreme example, but you need to make sure the choices are somewhat equal.

Give Them Time

It takes toddlers more time to think through their choices. Make sure you are actually giving them an appropriate length of time to make the choice. I have to remind myself that just pausing long enough to take a breath or a quick look around isn’t enough. Sometimes toddlers will need a good 30 seconds before they make their choice.

If you can see they are thinking it through, continue waiting. Usually, if they are thinking about the choice, they will be concentrating. You can almost see the wheels turning in their minds as they mull it over. If they are running around or working on something, they most likely are not actually making the choice at that moment.

In that instance, stay calm and offer the choice again. It may help to show them the objects or a way to indicate to you their choice (such as pointing towards the door to go to the park vs. pointing at the shelf to stay and do a puzzle.)

How to Phrase a Choice

First of all, if something isn’t a choice, don’t make it one. If you are going to the grocery store, tell them that. “We are going to the grocery store.” Don’t ask them “Do you want to go to the grocery store?” It isn’t a choice. Tell them, don’t ask.

When you give a toddler a choice, don’t say “Do you want to take a bath or not?” because the toddler will say no. Almost every time. You need to make it a choice between things. That could be “Do you want to take a bath before or after we read a story?”

This works for things they need to do also. In the toddler room, we have a red potty and a white potty. If a child is resisting sitting on the potty, we point out that they have a choice between the potties. Then the choice isn’t whether or not to sit down, it is which one to sit down on.

Giving a toddler choices will help give them the (limited) control they need in their lives. But too many parents take it to one extreme or another. Read on for tips and tricks on how to give your toddler choices. quirkyandthenerd.com

Toddlers Don’t Always Get to Choose

Not everything is a choice for a toddler. Going to the doctor or dentist isn’t a choice they get to make. As an adult, you understand that a doctor visit, no matter how uncomfortable, is something a child needs to do. A child will probably choose not to go to the doctor and get their broken arm set, but we as adults realize that despite the pain, it is necessary.

What happens if they can’t choose something they normally get to? Say you are running errands and come snack time, you only have one choice in your bag. So instead of offering a banana or an apple, like normal, the choice becomes a banana or just some water. Or a banana or nothing. And if the toddler chooses nothing, that is their choice.

Toddlers need to learn that their choices have consequences. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t give them the banana in 10 minutes when they decide they do want it. If that happens, remind them that they chose not to have the banana last time and that next time, they should choose the banana if they do want it.

Note: it is totally frustrating when toddlers are still learning that their choices have consequences. But it is totally necessary if you don’t want to be a doormat their entire lives. At that point you have to decide which decisions are final and which are not. Leaving the store is pretty final; pushing snack time back 10 minutes is not.

Giving a toddler choices will help give them the (limited) control they need in their lives. But too many parents take it to one extreme or another. Read on for tips and tricks on how to give your toddler choices. quirkyandthenerd.com

Honor Their Choices

I get it, sometimes I will give Mac a choice in what to wear and then be totally bummed when she picks the plain t-shirt and jeans vs. the super cute, coordinating outfit. But I let her wear it because that was her choice.

I feel like everyone has had an experience like this. It might not be a parent or caregiver with the choices, but maybe a co-worker, teammate, friend, etc. I have done group projects while in school with control freaks who would give the rest of us a “choice” but then she would make us go with her decision, even if the rest of us didn’t choose it.

If it isn’t a choice, don’t give them a choice. If you are taking family pictures with coordinating or matching outfits, it isn’t a choice. If they are taking birthday or school pictures, it can be a choice.

What if They Won’t Choose?

If they refuse to make a choice, you choose for them. Tell them that first. If they start throwing a fit because they don’t want to choose between walking home from the park or riding in the wagon, then calmly tell them that if they don’t choose, you will choose for them.

Before you make the choice, make sure you have waited the appropriate length of time. If you made the choice for them to ride in the wagon because they weren’t making the choices and they start to throw a fit the moment you get them in there, use it as a learning moment. You can say “Well, you didn’t choose so I chose for you. Would you rather walk?” That puts them back in control, but also shows them that you are serious and will make the choice if they won’t.

In Conclusion

You may feel a bit silly asking constantly if your toddler would like to wear their black sneakers or their almost identical blue ones or asking if they would rather have club crackers or butter crackers for snack, but I promise this will make things go smoother in the long run. (But not everyday, because there is not magical, miracle cure to being a toddler. Even a toddler teacher has rough days with her own toddler, take it from me 🙂

And now that you have read about giving a toddler choices, hop over and read the other ways I deal with a stubborn toddler.

Any other tips on giving a toddler choices? Let me know in the comments.

Giving a toddler choices will help give them the (limited) control they need in their lives. But too many parents take it to one extreme or another. Read on for tips and tricks on how to give your toddler choices. quirkyandthenerd.com

5 COMMENTS

  1. Kids Winter Clothes: Winter Tips from a Minnesota Mom - Quirky and the Nerd | 16th Dec 16

    […] they like. Mac was a winter baby, so we had people give us tons of different winter hats. Nowadays, we let her pick which hat to wear outside. Most of the time, she keeps it on without any trouble. (For real, giving […]

  2. Don't Make Food a Fight - Quirky and the Nerd | 30th Jan 17

    […] There are exactly three things a toddler can actually control: eating, sleeping and toileting. Those are also the three things that an adult can’t make a child do. (Believe me, I wish I could get my toddler to sleep!) In general, if a toddler feels that they don’t have any control or any choices, they will try to control one of those three areas. Giving a toddler choices is tough, but so necessary. For more tips on that, read my ultimate guide on giving a toddler choices. […]

  3. Brittany | 12th Feb 17

    hey, great post. I have twin toddlers right now 🙂 just a heads up your facebook follow link isn’t working. It says page unavailable.I did follow you on Pinterest and Instagram. I’m also a blogger and am so thankful when people let me know when certain links aren’t working. Have a great day.

    • Mikki | 13th Feb 17

      Thank you so much for the heads up! I’ll get right on fixing that ?

    • Mikki | 13th Feb 17

      Okay, I think I got it fixed. And twin toddlers?!? I will send so many good vibes your way. I have had twin toddlers in my toddler room before and it can be a challenge. But it can also be so sweet!

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