Positive Choices: A Powerful Discipline Tool
by Rene Hackney
Too often in discipline I hear parents go straight to consequences. A child is resistant to cleaning up his room and a parent immediately says, “If you don’t clean-up these toys, I’m putting them away for 3 days!” While fair, logical consequences are a good final step in discipline, they often shouldn’t be the first. There are several other discipline techniques available that parents may overlook: “I” messages, empathy, positive intent, and positive choices.
Of these skills, positive choices seem to be one of the easiest and most effective to use. The idea is that you are offering the child two positive choices of ways to comply. For example, you could ask the child who is resistant to cleaning-up his toys, “Would you like to start with the balls or the blocks,” or “Let’s clean-up the balls. Would you like to throw or roll them in?”
To be most effective, the choices should both be positive for the child and meet the goals of the parent. Being positive means you should steer clear of offering one positive and one negative choice such as, “Would you like to clean these up or go to your room?” Offered as a choice, this language is manipulative. You are forcing your child to pick the option you prefer. If you are going to offer one positive and one negative, it is better to be straightforward and offer this in the language of a logical consequence, “IF you don’t clean these up, THEN I will send you to your room.” The negative “choice” becomes a logical consequence.
If you have difficulty creating positive choices, you can focus on the how, when or where of the behavior. For a child not starting homework the how sounds like, “It’s time for homework. Do you want to start with spelling or math?” The when might be, “You have homework. Would you like to do it before dinner or before bath?” The where could be, “Okay, it’s homework time. Do you want to work in the kitchen or at your bedroom desk?”
The choices don’t have to be important choices. When my daughter needs to take medicine (which she hates), I offer choices such as, “Would you like it with a spoon or a dropper,” “Would you like this with juice or water,” or “Would you like to take it standing or sitting?” While none of this is terribly important, I am likely to gain compliance because I am giving her a sense of power in the process.
Positive choices work for that very reason. They allow the child a sense of power or control in the situation. Choices elicit cooperation while consequences more often lead to stand-offs. Choices also teach children about decision making. They teach children to consider and weigh options and that the choices they make have differing natural consequences. This is good practice as they grow.
Positive choices encourage autonomy. Because the parent is offering two positive choices, it is a safe environment for a young child to practice his newly found assertive voice. Over time the child may become more confident in his decision making abilities. It is also a good idea to offer choices often throughout the day, NOT just in discipline moments. The more practice children have at making decisions like “peanut butter and jelly or grilled cheese,” or “coloring or checkers,” the easier time they may have choosing in the midst of a discipline exchange.
Positive choices also gain compliance because they feel more open and flexible than techniques such as consequences or time-outs. As a parent, you are offering options rather than putting your foot down or briskly ending the situation. Choices provide the child a sense of respect; they suggest that you value the child’s opinion.
As for the number of choices, a good rule of thumb is that children under four-years-old are offered a choice of two, “Would you like to wear the red or blue shirt today?” As children are ready for wider choices they might reply, “I think I want the green today.” By all means, if the green shirt meets your goal, then green is fine. If the green is a party dress, you can reassert your choices, “That one won’t work for the playground. Would you like to wear red or blue?”
Occasionally, a child is reluctant to choose. You may make the choice for them, but to be fair, you have to let them know you are about to intervene by saying something like, “This is taking too long. You may choose or I will choose for you.” Most children quickly reply “Oh, the blue one!” because they don’t want to lose their sense of power.
If you are offering choices before consequences in discipline, and those choices don’t work, then consequences are available as a next step. It doesn’t work so easily in the opposite order. If you are offering positive choices and gaining compliance more often, likely you will need to resort to consequences less. The times I go straight to consequences are for behaviors such as biting, kicking, hitting or aggressive screaming. There just aren’t choices available for these behaviors.
Rene Hackney has a Masters Degree in School Psychology and is a Doctoral Candidate for Developmental Psychology. She is the founder of Parenting Playgroups, Inc. For more information, visit www.parentingplaygroups.com.