Choices within Limits


I recently read an article that was trending on Facebook entitled “Physician to parents: You’re doing it wrong”. The following statement got my attention and I just can’t let it go, so I decided to write about it.

“Some parenting experts told adults that they should offer their children choices instead of telling them what to do and parents believed them, he (author Leonard Sax) said. The hierarchy of parent over child no longer exists, he said. Instead of parents exercising their authority because they know what’s best, they are focusing on making children happy and boosting their self-esteem.”

You can read the whole article here:

I wholeheartedly agree that parents should have authority in the home and that healthy limits are good for children.

But I don’t see parental authority and children’s happiness/self-esteem as being mutually exclusive.

As humans we have a basic need for control, and children are no different. Some strong-willed children will actually engage in self-destructive behaviors just to prove that they are in control. Do you know of a toddler who will make him/herself sick by not going to the bathroom because potty training has become such a big deal? What about a child who refuses to eat when healthy foods are placed in front of him/her? Any chance there are still things that you do to prove to your parents that you are in control? Think about it. So as a parent, why not learn share control — let go of the control that isn’t really necessary in order to keep the control that is?

A skill shared in Parenting with Love and Logic is called choices within limits. The basic idea is that the parent offers choices to the child — and either choice works perfectly fine for the parent (aka limits). For those of us raised with the parenting model of “Because I said so” or “Do it now, or else”, this can be a challenging new skill to learn. But trust me, it’s well worth the effort. Choices within limits for the example cited in the article look something like this:

  • “Would you like to say ahhh while the doctor looks at your throat or just be quiet?”
  • “Would you like for me to hold your hand while the doctor looks at your throat or would you like to keep your hands folded in your lap?
  • “Would you like to keep your eyes closed or eyes open while the doctor looks at your throat?

The parent establishes the limit “while the doctor looks at your throat” but the child retains autonomy and self-expression. As an added bonus, the child learns to pay attention to and understand their own needs, and the parent can use these opportunities as a way of modeling calming behaviors in the doctor’s office — “would you like to take two deep breaths before the doctor looks at your throat or three?”

When parents learn to offer choices within limits, we give our children the ability to practice making decisions that are good for them.

This is probably a good time to note that choices within limits are offered to children for decisions that only affect the child — not for decisions that affect the whole family. Decisions that affect the whole family are made by the parent(s).

By having lots of experience making choices with limits, over time children learn how to identify what’s best for them and make decisions accordingly.

This seems like a good thing since we won’t always be with them to tell them what is best for them. After all, a goal of parenting is to prepare our children to thrive as independent adults one day. I’m pretty sure that making choices within limits is a skill that I have to use a lot in the adult world:

  • I can sleep an extra 15 minutes and leave with my hair wet or get up on time and leave with my hair dry. Either way I need to be at work on time.
  • I can walk the dog in the rain during the daylight or wait until the rain stops and walk the dog in the dark. Either way the dog gets walked.

Similar to my kids, I’m not always deliriously happy with my choices. But I do like to have choices so that I feel like I have some control over my life. What about you? And what about your kids? Maybe try to offer some choices within limits as an experiment and see what happens.

Share it now!

Leave a Reply