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Why I Give My Children Fewer (or No) Choices

Why I Give My Children Fewer (or No) Choices

Choices make kids feel smart, but choices don’t necessarily make them wise. Sound strange? Well, consider what your day as a parent might look like.

Little Caleb wants you to read him a book. He doesn’t ask; he sweetly says, “Mommy, read me a book.” And because you know reading is an important thing for little C.’s mental development, you gladly reach for one.

Caleb doesn’t want that book. He wants the other book you didn’t pick. Still, at least he wants to read, you tell yourself. So, you point to the couch. Caleb flops on the loveseat. You tell yourself that it doesn’t really matter because at least he sat down.

When the book is finished, you ask your precious son what he wants for lunch. He tells you peanut butter and grape jelly. You don’t have grape jelly. You have strawberry.

Caleb doesn’t want strawberry. He wants grape.

That’s when the meltdown begins.

So, what went wrong? In a thousand little moments like these, we’ve allowed our Calebs to become wise in their own eyes. They’ve been trained to assume they know what’s best. And it’s our fault.

Wisdom Takes Time

Solomon tells his son that wisdom comes—over time—by listening to his father and mother (Proverbs 1:8), but even their instruction ultimately goes back to God giving wisdom (Proverbs 2:6). But you’ll notice something Solomon doesn’t do. He doesn’t give his son choices. He just tells him what to do, with all the subtlety of a dreaded party pooper. Don’t go near that woman. Get some brains. Don’t hang out with losers. (Maybe that’s not exactly what he said, but you get the idea.)

Obviously, Solomon’s not going for cool dad of the year. He wouldn’t pass muster in Parenting magazine. And you know what? He doesn’t care. Neither should you.

Wisdom is passed on over time. Children aren’t born with it. They really don’t have the capacity to make good choices until you lay down a moral foundation. And when we give them so many choices at an early age—what to wear, what to eat, what to do—we’re accidentally teaching them something we don’t really want to teach.

What’s that? Well, think about it. In our story, Caleb picked the activity; Caleb picked which book to read; Caleb picked where to sit; and Caleb picked what to eat. Who does Caleb think is wise? Caleb. So, when you tell Caleb no about the jelly, you’re not just “laying down the law.” You’re attacking his pride—pride that we parents helped create.

Take It Away

Early on, I went for cool. I allowed my oldest daughter to pick… just about everything. After all, I thought that as long as we directed her moral decisions with biblical standards, we’d be set. Arguing and complaining—that’s where we needed to focus.

But arguing and complaining usually came specifically because of choices. If her favorite sleeper wasn’t clean or her pink cup was broken, that’s when the explosions started. She knew she was right; I knew it wasn’t possible. Boom!

My genius wife stepped in at this point (most of my parenting revelations start with that phrase). Out went the choices for our two year old; in came the readymade decisions. (The heavens probably opened as well, but I didn’t realize that until later.)

No longer did my daughter get to pick breakfast. She just got something to eat. No longer did she select her outfit. She just helped put it on.

Of course, she hated it. She refused to eat. But the strangest thing happened. When she realized we wouldn’t change the course du jour despite her protests, she didn’t starve. The food amazingly vanished. Same with her clothes—though with a bit more frustration.

Gradually, the arguing and complaining lessened. (It never stops completely, but I can’t even say that about myself.) And she simply accepted not having choices as a regular part of life. In fact, I’d say it was a relief for her.

Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t give her any choices. After she settled into the pattern of just accepting what’s given, we sometimes do allow her an occasional pizza-or-hamburgers type dinner. But these are the exception.

Why It Matters

Decision-making is, more often than not, a moral issue, especially for young children. Letting them have such power means that you’re letting go of some of your authority. Sure, it may seem innocent. But over time, with decision after decision, you’ve ceded all kinds of ground.

And let’s be blunt: young kids aren’t ready for that sort of responsibility. It puffs them up like Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. They don’t know how to handle authority yet. They need you to show them how to be wise first.

So, don’t feel “uncool” if you set Caleb’s schedule, pick the book, and give him no say in lunch. Instead, realize that you’re establishing a godly foundation that he can build on. When he’s proven that he respects your authority to make decisions for him (Ephesians 6), then he can gradually enjoy more freedom to decide on his own.

And you’ll stay sane… well, saner.

John UpChurch is the Senior Editor for

Publication date: February 1, 2013