Toddler-Sized Choices

Little girl kneeling on floor pouring water from a tea pot into tea cups.
Alloy Photography/Veer

An acquaintance taught her 2-year-old to say "no" in Japanese. While her friends applauded the brilliant toddler for speaking a second language, this mother confided to me that she merely taught her child this word because she dreaded hearing the repetitive no that so often accompanies the "terrible twos." Popular culture accepts that this age group can be difficult, but smart parenting strategies may help curb this rebellious behavior in your home.

A treasured toddler response

Toddlers have very little power, yet they are often determined to wield all they have to demonstrate that they are autonomous, capable of making things happen. And no is one way for them to do this. Sometimes 2-year-olds may even use the dreaded word when they mean to say "yes." "Would you like a cookie?" can be answered with a resounding, "No!" as the toddler simultaneously helps herself to a handful of cookies.

Toddlers have few independent choices about when to get up, eat, go outside, watch a movie, stop playing, take a bath or go to bed. When children can't make even basic choices, they exert their independence in other ways.

Not only is no powerful, but it can also get results. For example, screaming "no" and throwing oneself on the floor when shopping or visiting family causes things to happen. And if Mom says, "No!" when a child asks for more dessert, the word's power is further reinforced. One of the goals of parenting is to remove the effectiveness of this type of behavior.

As parents face the challenges of raising God’s littlest ones, they can look to our heavenly Father for an example of His ways for helping us, His children, to develop into the individuals He wants us to become. His yes is "yes," and His no means "no." It's OK for toddlers to learn that their parents' words matter, too.

Choice opportunities

Parents can reduce the stress of the terrible twos by giving their children access to an acceptable level of control. Though we would not offer the choice of whether or not to take a bath, we might offer the choice of reading a book now and then taking a bath or taking a bath now and then reading a book. As long as parents are willing to offer legitimate, authentic choices and then live with the child’s decision, a child’s need for power is satisfied in an acceptable manner for the moment.

God gives us, His children, free will, so it's OK to pass His generosity on to toddlers in an age-appropriate way. Of course, children should not be offered a non-choice. A non-choice is phrased as an option, but the adult has already decided what will happen. For example, parents may ask, "Would you like to take a nap?" but what they means is, "You are going to take a nap." That is not a legitimate choice. It is a non-choice.

Instead, parents should offer two options to a toddler. More choices than that can overwhelm this age group. Would you like to wear your yellow or red socks today? Would you like cereal or toast for breakfast? Which of these two toys do you want to take with you in the car? Do you want to walk or ride in the stroller? There are hundreds of opportunities in daily living that can be offered to toddlers. We simply need to take advantage of them.

The consequences

When parents offer choices, children learn that there are consequences to their choices. A consequence doesn't have to mean something bad. It merely means that there is a relationship between choices and results.

Children gain this knowledge when the adult does not permit them to change their minds after a choice has been made. For example, once the choice has been made to have a banana, children should not be allowed to eat a bite of banana and then ask for strawberries.

In a loving voice a parent can say, "You chose a banana this time. Next time you can choose strawberries." This aligns with God's example to us, too. We live with the consequences of our choices. Sometimes we have to come to Him for loving reassurance when we make unwise choices, but His arms are always open to us, as your arms should be to your toddler in the midst of your child's decisions. So once decisions have been made, children need to learn to live with their choices.

When we offer 2-year-olds the opportunity to choose, we satisfy the child's developmental need to become a more independent individual. By empowering children in this way, parents actually prepare their kids for future choices that have greater impact when they're older. And we just might turn the year of the terrible twos into the not-so-terrible twos.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine . Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2016 by Sandra Crosser. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: Shaping Toddler Behavior

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