Debunking ‘Choice’ in Children’s Behavior

Children's behavior is not all about choices.

Children’s behavior is not all about choices.

Choice gets a bad name in early childhood. Adults scold kids about the “choices” they make on a daily basis: “That was not a good choice” (when she hits her brother). Or perhaps we interrogate: “Was that a good choice or a bad choice?” when kids behave in a way we don’t like. “Let’s see you make a better choice now.”

When it comes to young children, we need to recognize that it’s not all about choice. Behavior at early ages is usually driven by feelings, not decision-making.

Children often can’t explain why they do things,  and heat of the moment “bad choice” actions are rarely thought through. Even if a young child recognizes there’s a choice, she may not be able to select the option the adult wants because it’s simply too hard. Impulse control is a developing skill.

Besides, “choice” implies individual options. Adults often use “choice” to mean: “do what I want you do to – or else.”

When a young child hits a playmate, recognize it’s not a choice. It’s an action driven by intense feelings. Young children express their big feelings with their bodies. It might come out as a scream, kick, shove or bite. We need to stop the behavior, but accept the feeling. “You’re mad, but I can’t let you hit your brother.”

The next step is to acknowledge how hard this is. Don’t pass judgment about “good choices” and “bad choices.” Choice implies control, and these children haven’t fully developed that control yet. If they’re hitting, they’re acting, not thinking. Controlling impulses doesn’t come consistently for many years. Some days even typically even-keeled children are out of control.

Say: “It’s too hard for you right now. I’ll help you stop.”

Think how comforting these words are to an out-of-control, emotionally overwhelmed child. Someone will help me. Someone who’s bigger and stronger when I need it most. No one’s judging, no one’s in trouble. Simply, “It’s too hard for you right now.”

Choice can be hard for kids at the best of times – do I want the red lollipop or the green one? When we think of choice as something to develop, but not something to expect, our own anger will fade at “bad choice” behavior.

Do you find yourself requesting “good choices” from a child? Do you get angrier when you perceive a child is making deliberately bad choices? How can you remain neutral and helpful?

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2 Responses to Debunking ‘Choice’ in Children’s Behavior

  1. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this. After working in a handful of daycare centers when I was in college, I am horrified and often repulsed to see how that time has snuck its way into my parenting. I tend to default back to those years and I hate it. This is one of those phrases that I have heard, that I have USED, but it has always bugged me, though I couldn’t put my finger on why.

    I love the phrase “neutral and helpful.” So much more effective.

  2. Keith says:

    “It’s ok to go up the slide.” What a great title for a book!

    Thanks for the helpful article, it was very enlightening. I’ll keep it in mind with my little ones (8 and 6, both going on 41).