Parents have a powerful tool in their arsenal for teaching their children to make choices and develop independence. The trick is simply to consciously use the word “OR” in conversations with children.

It is easy to fall into the habit of using directives or imperatives with our children. “Put on your shoes.” “Eat your dinner.” “Stop doing that!” After all, it is our responsibility to keep them safe, healthy and socially presentable. How many times a day do you find yourself telling your children what to do? Do you sometimes listen to your own voice replaying in your head and feel as though you sound like a nagging record with a scratch in it?

Consciously incorporating the word, “OR” into your conversations with your children will not only transform the way you speak, but will also change your thinking as well as help you teach your child important life skills and habits. That is a tall order, I know, but changing the way we talk can be enormously influential to both our own thinking and to our children’s confidence and sense of power over their own lives. It is important for even young children to feel as though they have some control within their lives.

Sometimes I might want to say, “Put your shoes on, it’s time to go.” Instead I could say, “Are you going to wear your red shoes today OR would you like to wear your boots?”

If I want to remind my child to use a quiet voice in the library, I can say, “Use your indoor voice please,” or I could turn it into more of a teachable moment by asking, “When we are in the library, should we use inside voices, OR outside voices?”

It might sound simple and obvious (aren’t we really saying the same thing?) but by turning the directive into a question with “OR” the conversation takes on a different tone. I am asking my child to think about where she is and what she is doing and to consider what she can do differently. By asking her the question, I have transferred the power of decision making from myself to her, and as an added bonus, I have taken a step towards curbing my habit of nagging.

Exchanging a directive statement for a choice giving question will also help avoid power struggles even if it is not immediately apparent how one can build choice into the situation. When you want to say, “Clean up your toys now,” stop and ask yourself, “How can I incorporate the word OR into that statement and turn it into a question?” One solution might be, “Would you like to stop and clean up now, or do you need five more minutes to finish up.” Notice that it is clearly evident that cleaning up is inevitable and non-negotiable, however the child’s work and opinion is also validated and heard.

Other examples might be:

“Are you planning to eat your vegetables first OR will you save them for the end?” instead of “Eat your vegetables!”

“Would you like to wear this sweater OR that sweatshirt?” instead of, “It’s cold outside, you need to wear an extra layer.”

A great many many power struggles can be avoided by giving children the opportunity to make decisions and by diverting attention away from commands and towards the choices.

Think about the biggest challenges you face during the day with regards to your children. When do tensions rise and tempers flare? How can you build in appropriate choices that offer your children the opportunity to practice their decision making skills and build autonomy while also allowing you to maintain the routines and boundaries that you value?

Is bath time a problem because your two year old does not want to turn off the tv? “Do you want to read a book with mommy before you take a bath OR after?” The tv will be turned off either way, but by giving him the choice, you are helping him to develop his sense of self and build feelings of control.

Keep in mind that only viable choices should be offered. If the schedule is tight and a delay will cause stress, do not offer a choice of more time. Additionally, it is important to maintain consistency and follow-through. If a child makes a choice and does not uphold his end of the bargain (ie. Choosing to play five more minutes, but then continuing to play past the appointed time) parents need to step in and implement an appropriate consequence. Children need to know that choices may be forfeited and ultimately the parent must control the situation. Children will challenge boundaries and reinforcing the boundaries with consistency contributes to teaching children to feel safe.

Remember, child rearing is a marathon, not a sprint. If offering choices and replacing directives with questions including “OR” is new to your repertoire of parenting strategies, give yourself and your child time to adjust. We are all still learning.