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Anna Lussenburg

  • Anna Lussenburg

Why choice doesn't work for toddlers

When I tell parents to keep toddler choices to an absolute minimum, parents often look confused. That's because they've been told one parenting expert after another and through books, magazines and other media that the way to deal with toddler tantrums is to offer lots and lots of choices.

The argument goes like this. Your child is desperate to control their own life. They want to decide like you do what you want to eat and when to eat it, when to go to the park and when to go to bed. They want autonomy and all you need to do as the parent to ensure harmony is to make sure they get it or at least get enough reasonable choices to feel as if they have it. Give them that autonomy and your once argumentative toddler will be replaced by a calm, reasonable little entity who will finally be happy because they'll be getting at least a bit of their own way.

Ah ha, if only it was so easy. Well, actually it is if you understand what choice really is, what it involves and the fundamentals of what toddlers really want. Not what they tell you they want but what they want subconsciously.

Firstly, if you're a parent I'm sure you've been on the wrong end of your child's tantrum and it is entirely normal for your toddler to have some tantrums.

Every time I see a poor mom or dad struggle with a writhing, screaming bundle of toddler, particularly in some public place, I really feel for them.  All the stares and the disapproving glances.  Who needs that? However, I'm here to tell you that those very same tantrums are often precipitated by approaching the concept of choice in the wrong way.

Lots of people have misconceptions about choice.  They see a toddler as someone who as they grow, is reaching for a certain degree of independence.  That’s true, they are.  But then they get lost because they assume that just as the toddler begins to reach out for this minor degree of self determination, that they can actually handle what it is they’re asking for.  That’s when my personal 'oops’ bell goes off and that’s because choice, is a learned concept and toddlers just aren’t developmentally ready yet to understand all the facets that are connected with it.

So what facets am I talking about?  Well, you see choice naturally involves the concept of loss.   If I’m going to buy a car, I have to decide which one I’m going to buy.  Perhaps the final list has come down to a Honda or a Subaru, but I’ve only got enough money for one and I certainly can’t have both.  So I have to choose one over the other.  It’s that loss that a child must fully understand before they can properly exercise choice.

That means, that the concept of choice is a learned skill, which requires lots and lots of practice. We'll get back to that in a minute but first, go back in your mind to when you were a teenager and desperately wanted the freedom a car provided.  You begged and pleaded for mom or dad to hand you the keys and teach you. 

Finally your dad or mom finally acquiesced, or you were taught by a third party, someone, with a whole lot of provisos, eventually gave you the keys.  But they didn’t just hand you the keys and then go indoors and read the paper, or check their email.  They spent the time with you, explaining how the car worked and taking you on many learning trips.  Trips where you spluttered and jerked your way across mostly empty parking lots, frightening little old ladies who thought it would finally be a quiet time to shop.

Only when you had truly learned how the car worked and could demonstrate competence, where you allowed to drive on your own.  By that time, you could fully cope with the responsibilities asked of you.

So now let’s now go back to our toddler and look at choice from their perspective.  The biggest mistake parents make is offering too much choice too soon.  You see toddlers simply can’t handle the loss component of choice.  They want both things and usually right now, so they don’t understand that having to choose, means that they can have one thing, but not the other.

So to return to the kind of choice a two year old can handle, instead offer them two things, but don't take either one of them away.  That allows them to play with the idea of choice, but doesn’t threaten them with a concept they can’t yet grasp.  They can change their mind 286 times if they please, with nobody taking the other option away.  That means they can practice making a simple ‘choice’ over and over again, long after every adult around them has died of boredom.

So remember, If you offer too much choice, you'll get tantrums.

If you offer too many choices to your toddler, instead of garnering the beaming face of a little guy or girl that's finally achieved some degree of self determination, what you’ll more likely get, is a bunch of failing arms and feet and a noise that’s somewhere between the screaming fans at a rock concert and a supersonic jet taking off.  A noise guaranteed to make you deaf in middle age, which is probably a sanity saver when it comes to your teenager’s choice of music.

Toddlers faced with choices they can’t handle will feel overwhelmed and they will show that rising discomfort through their behaviour.  No, they won’t sit down with you and discuss the problem in a rational way.  That’s why they’re toddlers.  They’ll hit, bite, kick and scream.

So to ensure calm in your life take the overwhelming pressure off their little shoulders and just tell them we’re going here and we’re doing that, while looking cheery and confident along the way and the chances are, they will be as happy as little clams.   Make the mistake of thinking their tantrum is a drive for independence and start backing off and you miss what your child is trying to tell you.  What’s that?  That they are overwhelmed and want you to decide.   In other words, they want you to lead, so they can relax and be a kid.  

Do toddler tantrums make you feel like this?

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