A tale of two choices: Dual options can produce one outcome

By Macaile Hutt

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I see a lot of power struggles and attempts to gain control from our tiny clients in the clinic. Over my years of practice, I’ve noticed a trend with children impacted by medical involvements requiring lots of doctor’s visits, surgeries, procedures, or hospitalizations and the attempt to control his or her environment in any way possible.

I empathize with these children, and I can understand why it would feel so “out of control” to have things being done to your body seemingly against your will, even if it was always in your best interest. I also see power struggles when new siblings are born, parents experience marital transitions, families move to new cities or change schools, the list goes on and on. Power or control struggles can also happen seemingly out of nowhere when children reach new developmental stages urging them to create independence and autonomy in any way they can.

We’re often told to “pick our battles” when it comes to these struggles, and sometimes it’s not a big deal to concede to switching out the blue cup for the green one or playing for just five more minutes before getting out of the bathtub. But what happens when the need for power creates elephant reactions to mouse problems? What happens when the need for control overtakes the outcome entirely?

I use a lot of principles from Parenting with Love and Logic, and I highly recommend the books or the course to anyone interested in finding tangible solutions to everyday parenting or child-raising issues. There’s an answer for everything and the approach is calm, rational, and loving.

There are 2 basic rules in Love & Logic:

  1. Adults set firm limits in loving ways without anger, lecture, threats or repeated warnings. Set limits using enforceable statements, regard mistakes as learning opportunities, and resist the temptation to nag.
  2. When children misbehave and cause problems, adults hand these problems back in loving ways. Provide empathy before describing consequences, use few words and more loving actions, delay consequences when necessary, and give kids the gift of owning and solving their problems.

I have seen a lot of success with many of the components utilized in the Parenting with Love and Logic teachings, but one of my favorite go-to tools is giving two choices that yield the same outcome.

Giving choices can help a child feel autonomy without fully handing over all control. Giving choices that result in the same outcome allows for everyone to feel successful and content. A silly example that I often use with parents to introduce the idea is the child not wanting to leave the park when it’s time to go. We can calmly and rationally ask the child, “Would you like to go to the car with your feet on the ground or in the air?” Hence, asking the child if they would like to walk or be carried to the car.

If the child continues to play and does not answer the question, we would follow up with, “It looks like you’re having a hard time answering the question. If you’re unable to answer me in five seconds I will have to choose for you.” Five seconds passes. “Okay, Johnny, you’ll have to go to the car with your feet in the air.” Pick up the child without showing too much reaction if possible, safely carry and buckle them into the car, and carry on with your day. This moment is about giving two choices, not about engaging further in a power struggle, so a larger lecture isn’t necessary, as Johnny made it to the car with his feet in the air and will have the opportunity to make a different choice next time around.

I use that example because it depicts the notion that sometimes it has to get a little bit worse before it gets a lot better. We expect this to happen in the clinic, and it always gets better with more practice. The nature of this tool is to create harmony, independence, and consistency within the home. It allows for two choices to be given to promote independence, but it always results in the desired outcome in order to still set healthy boundaries the child can feel save existing within. Sometimes it works wonderfully and the child makes a choice and moves on with his or her day, and other times the child desires to exercise defiance in order to test the waters to see if the caregiver will truly follow through with their end of the deal. This can still be done calmly and rationally and further builds trust within the child and caregiver. Below, I have listed more examples of giving two choices with the same result:
• Would you like to clean your room before or after you have a snack?
• Would you like to read a book or do stretches together before bed? We only have time for one.
• Would you rather have peanut butter and jelly or chicken nuggets for lunch? We aren’t going through the drive-thru today.
• Is it better for you if I carry your clothes to your bed for you to fold them or put them in a laundry hamper so you can fold them wherever you’d like?
• Do you want me to help clean up 10 pieces of Legos or 0 pieces of Legos? I am not going to clean them all up for you, but I will help with 10.

The following examples set clear boundaries from a place of love while still allowing the child to make choices and feel empowered in his or her daily life. After a while, this exercise becomes second nature and giving choices happens almost automatically. We must be willing to follow through with our end of the deal by making a choice for a child unwilling to make his or her own choice, but I always calmly narrate what I am doing in order to give the child a sense of understanding and still maintain some control of his or her environment while doing so.

This tool has helped foster autonomy in so many children, while still allowing parents and caregivers to maintain healthy boundaries and structure within all daily environments. It’s made a big difference in my life with children, and I hope it will make a difference in yours, as well.

Good luck and happy choosing!

Macaile Hutt is the Director of Occupational Therapy for Star Speech and Occupational Therapy located in Star, Idaho. Her therapy style takes a holistic and child-directed approach, with the goal of children succeeding across multiple environments. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy from A.T. Still University and has received continuing education as a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional for Children and Adolescents (CCATP-CA), Handwriting Without Tears, pediatric kinesiotaping, Interactive Metronome, and Beckman Oral Motor. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, backpacking, and traveling.

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