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Avoid Parenting Frustrations by Limiting Your Kid’s Options

A young girl with food contemplates whether she would prefer healthy apples or unhealthy donuts
Kylie Walls/Shutterstock

Imagine someone gives you $50, sends you into the store and says, “pick something out.” What do you choose when you have so many choices? If adults find such broad parameters overwhelming, imagine what it feels like for a child.

The Psychology of Decision Making

According to a piece in Psychology Today by Liraz Margalit Ph.D., the biggest reason that having too many options is problematic is that people inherently fear they will choose the wrong thing. When we have too many options, the chance that we made a bad or wrong choice goes up.

Think of it like calling heads or tails on a coin versus calling a number on a six-sided die. With a coin, you have a 50 percent chance of guessing right; with a die, your odds drop to about 17 percent. Even though picking a pair of socks or a t-shirt isn’t likely to have any long-lasting consequences, it’s the idea of making the wrong choice that makes having too many options a problem.

Writes Margalit:

“Human cognitive ability cannot efficiently compare more than five options, so most of us will start looking at the first few options and stop.”

If the average human cannot handle more than five choices, then a child, whose brain has not yet fully developed, is even more likely to get overwhelmed. And that can lead to indecisiveness and tantrums.

Limiting Options for Your Little Ones

Family Looking At Clothes On Rail In Shopping Mall
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Plenty of frustration in parenting happens when parents ask their child if they “want” to do something when the parents don’t intend to give the child a choice.

When presenting a child with options, make sure that their choice matters. So instead of saying “do you want to get out of the bath,” which implies that your child can say “no,” try, “It’s time get out of the bath. Would you like to wear your monster pajamas or your dinosaur pajamas.”

Try limiting their choice to two options (apple or banana, slide or swings, purple or green shirt). If they can’t or don’t want to choose between the options you give them, don’t give them a third choice. Learning to choose from the options they have is essential.

This type of optional decision-making works best in situations when children need to decide quickly, or they need help making a choice.

It also depends on the age of the child. An older child may not need only two options when picking out their clothes, but they might need limited options when choosing their snack or where to go for a family activity.

Consistency is Key

One of the best things you can do when limiting your child’s options is to stay consistent. Choose situations where you don’t have any skin in the game when it comes to what choice they make—snack time, clothes they wear, the activities they choose at the park, and so on.

Try to be as consistent as possible with the situations where you give them a choice.

Their choices don’t necessarily have to be black or white. For example, you could say “You can eat what we’re making for dinner, or you can have cereal.” It’s still a this or that choice, but you won’t feel trapped into specific meal options if you get swamped with work.

Not Every Situation Requires Limited Options

There are times when your child should have the opportunity to do whatever they want to do, like during play time. Free time and free choice allow them to explore their creativity when the time is appropriate on a given day.

According to Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., in an article on Early Childhood News:

“If children learn to live with their decisions when they are small, and if they are given many, many opportunities to make choices as they are growing up, then it is more likely that they will be able to make wise decisions when they are older, when the consequences can bring repercussions much more serious than apple or banana,”

Letting your kids make decisions by limiting their options can make every day tasks like eating breakfast and getting ready for school much less stressful while allowing your little one to learn necessary life skills. That’s a win-win for everyone!

Angela Brown Angela Brown
Angela has 14 years of writing and editing experience, including as a reporter and copy editor for two newspapers. Angela has a Bachelor's in communication with minors in creative and technical writing from BYU-Idaho. She works closely with real-estate and financial industry clients. Read Full Bio »
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