Toddler Conflict Resolution Tool: Give a Choice where Inaction is Not a Choice

It is so popular to use, as a parenting tool, giving children choices. This tool absolutely has context but it’s power is often overestimated. Up until Toddler Milestone 6 (“Active Decision Making”), which is roughly 2 years, 2 months, I (usually) don’t use anything related to choices to gain my child’s cooperation. While children are capable of making choices as young as 18 months, I do not find that children have the persistence of thought to commit to a choice until Toddler Milestone 5 (“Persistence and Insistence”) and don’t have the ability to deliberately make a choice–as something they understand is a way to solve a problem–until indeed Toddler Milestone 6, “Active Decision Making.” This is why up until Toddler Milestone 6 (2 years, 2 months), I am more likely to use distraction. (See: Conflict Resolution Tool: Distraction is not Distraction).

Using choices as a tool needs further context in that, to use it, the child must not be in a terribly angry state. If they are, you must Deal With the Emotion First. This tool “Give a Choice Where Inaction is not a Choice,” applies when your child is mostly calm and you are seeking their cooperation and can’t get it, as they are defiant. Towards this end, it works beautifully.

This tool is different than giving limited choices, because one of the choices has to be what you will do if the child does not make a choice. An example may be, “You can get in the car seat or I will put you in.” I learned this from the book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It may sound like a threat, but it’s not. The choice tells the child “You need to do something” in an obvious way and promises a contingent follow-up of gentle action, not insults or punishment. It’s better than threatening to take away Santa Claus. It is also better than nagging. It is kind and firm. My experience was most times, the child will say, “Ok! I will [do as asked]! I don’t want to be picked up!”

This was my go-to tool from 2 years, 2 months until 2 years, 10 months. At 2 years, 10 months, which is Toddler Milestone 11, there is a major new advancement making this tool less effective. Up until TM 10, the child cannot see anything but the choices presented to them. They do not have the ability to conjure up in their head a 3rd/different choice. However, starting at Toddler Milestone 10, which is called “Mental Picturing,” they can start to imagine things in their mind. They might see an apple and say “Oh that looks like a tomato,” even though the tomato is not in sight. At Toddler Milestone 11, in addition to having this mental picturing ability, they start to understand right/wrong ways of doing things and pick the way they want. So for instance, if you ask them, “Who do you want to brush your teeth, mommy or daddy?” they might say, “Me!” They can come up with a third choice and apply it to the situation–they want to brush their own teeth. As such, the tool becomes less effective.

I still use “give a choice where inaction is not a choice” after Toddler Milestone 11 (2 years, 10 months) but it’s more of a last resort. Instead, I start to appeal to their greatly matured empathy and understanding of right and wrong by using “I statements” and other “Giving Information. “Blog coming soon.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

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