The Gift of Limiting Toddlers’ Choices


Decisions, decisions. This is as much an issue for young children as it is for adults. Will they or won’t they put on their shoes by themselves? Clear their dishes? Try a new food? Ultimately, it’s up to them to decide.


With so many choices that need to be made on a daily basis, it shouldn’t surprise me that toddlers would prefer that this mass of choices be made manageable by those they trust, but it did.


Despite my intentional parenting, I still find myself unable to see the balance between offering a healthy number of independent experiences and more guided/limited experiences. When my toddler insists on doing something for herself, I generally ask myself, why not?  So, she gets to do many things on her own. However, if she has a hard time doing something that is asked of her, such as getting buckled into her car seat, I wonder if have I created too much freedom and not limited her choices consistently?


I question my choices and often wonder if am I striking a good balance. What I recently realized is that I don’t have to cross my fingers and wait for an answer. I can and should more regularly look to my partner in this process, that person who these decisions are being made for – my daughter.


Last week, I asked my toddler-aged daughter, “What shirt would you like to wear?”


“Mom, can you ask me this one or this one,” referring to the way we typically get dressed in the morning.


I pulled two shirts from the closet and offered her a choice. She smiled and chose one by touching it with her nose.


She could have been asking for the familiarity of our morning routine or just requesting some playful interaction, but my sense was that she was asking me to limit her choices.


Limited choices feel manageable. This is true not just for toddlers, but for me and, I assume, other adults (just try to remember the last time you had to choose an insurance carrier). Toddlers face many decisions in this great big world, so it’s understandable that making the process manageable can be comforting.


Offering choices is one way for toddlers to participate, and to make independent decisions within something that requires their participation, such as getting dressed. What I forgot in this moment, was that limiting choices is also about setting boundaries. It is about creating a context for independence for and with the willing child. It is a manageable circumstance in which children can decide for themselves by being supported and encouraged to do so by the adults who care for them.


As children age, I expect the enticing choices to expand to include some that aren’t as appealing to me as they may be to my daughter. However, I hope that the parenting strategies my daughters are partnering with me to develop will not just set a tone for collective decision making, but also help me remember to take their perspective when it comes to setting limits.

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