The One Trick That Works with My Stubborn Toddler

Is there some mean fairy that sends out secret messages to all kids on their second birthday? It really seemed like a switch flipped after my daughter turned two. Everything was a battle from what I made for dinner to what color her water cup was. Matching socks? No way. Keep her shoes on in the car? Hahahaha—no. I hate the phrase “terrible twos”… but I see the inspiration. 

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My husband and I have tried hard to let her feel independent, but sometimes there are just things she has to do. Counting to three didn’t work, timeouts only worked rarely, and simply using a stern voice flat out failed. And that is when I pulled out a trick I used back when I was a teacher. It is a tried-and-true method that parents and teachers have been using for decades, but somehow I had forgotten it in our busy daily lives. Are you ready? Here it is: offer choices

I’m sure you have seen this technique somewhere else, but unlike so many of those tips and tricks that are crammed into discipline books this one works and it’s easy. It worked on my sixth and seventh graders, and it even worked on my eleventh graders to a point. It is a pretty universal desire to feel in control of your situation, and this idea taps into that need for independence and power. 

Here are some tips for offering choices to young children:

  • Make sure both choices end up with him or her doing what you want. 
  • Try to make both choices positive. If one choice is always an obvious punishment, they will catch on and be less willing to go with it. Of course, sometimes a negative consequence is necessary.
  • Don’t offer an option you are unwilling to accept.  
  • Try “if-then” statements: “If you take your shoes off then you will stay inside. If you leave your shoes on then you can go back outside.” And try “or” statements: “Do you want me to butter your toast or do you want to butter your toast?” 
  • Repeat and give wait time. If they resist at first, repeat their choices and wait a beat longer for them to answer. Sometimes it takes a minute for them to think it through. 
  • Speak slowly and calmly, even be upbeat if you can. Make it sound like a fun choice and they will think it is. 
  • Offer choices routinely, even when they are not being stubborn. This makes it more of a positive activity and gets him or her used to (and excited to) make choices. It may even help proactively avoid a tantrum because he or she already feels in control.  Here is a great article from Psychology Today with more advice on helping give kids choices. 

The beauty of this technique is that it takes the blame away from you. There are simply two choices, and that is it. They get to choose their own outcome.

So what does my day of offering choices look like?

  • “You can play with your blocks or put them away and then play with your babies.”
  • “We can sing the ABCs while I buckle you in, or we can see how high we can count!” 
  • “If you brush your teeth right now we will have time to read a book before bed. If you wait, we will not have time to read a book.” 
  • “You can either ride in the cart or hold my hand the whole time we are in the store. If you let go of my hand then you will ride in the cart.” 

I am not saying this will work miracles, and I am by no means an expert in child behavior, but it has worked really well for my family. We have fewer meltdowns (which is a good thing) especially in public (definitely a good thing) and my daughter still feels independent.

Do you offer choices to your kids? I would love to hear how it works for you! 

6 Responses to The One Trick That Works with My Stubborn Toddler

  1. Becca November 26, 2016 at 10:05 am #

    This is perfect. We are on the struggle train with our own toddler. Recently I recounted how my 5th graders were so in line and disciplined, and I couldn’t seem to handle a 2 year old. This is a great reminder of powerful choices fostering independence. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Kay June 27, 2017 at 12:30 pm #

    Ha, unless you have a kid like mine who makes every choice an opportunity to be contrary. Q: Do you want ice cream or cookies? A: NOOOO, I WANT CAKE! [Then argues for 45 minutes about why she will not accept ice cream or cookies.]

    But most kids who are not future trial lawyers in training will probably appreciate choices. 🙂

    • Anita June 27, 2017 at 2:21 pm #

      Mine does the same thing! She loves choices! It gives her the opportunity to say no to several things at once! 😂 And she totally recognizes it as a technique to get certain behavior, so she uses it on me all the time. “Mom, do you want to give me a Popsicle now or after you give me ice cream?”

      • Elaine
        Elaine June 27, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

        Umm sign me up for popsicles after ice cream too 😉 Hey, she has to try, right?

    • Elaine
      Elaine June 27, 2017 at 2:59 pm #

      Hopefully she will put those debate skills to good use in the future, Kay! 🙂

  3. JESSI June 28, 2017 at 10:50 pm #

    My 3 yo old son always asks for another different choice. Ha! I’ll say, you have two choices, then tell him what they are and he says, I want 3 choices!

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