A Resource for Nannies and Families

Toddlers Teens and Choices

Someone once said, “I wanted things to change, and they didn’t, but when I changed myself, everything changed.” Most of us have heard a version of that thought, which applies to parenting as much as to the rest of life. Specifically, you can’t change your child (or your charge), but when you change, the child will change.


You can try this with your Toddling Terrible Two or with your Teen, two age groups that have, you may have noticed, much in common. Both shift constantly between dependence and independence. To both, not getting their way is the end of the world and accompanied by histrionics. And it’s a waste of time to attempt to reason with either.

One way to open things up is to offer choices. After all, tantrums and lack of cooperation are basic strategies for ensuring a say in the matter at hand. And don’t we all like to have a choice? So start offering choices wherever and whenever you need cooperation – but remember: limit the options. It’s critical that you, too, be able to follow through in what you offer. For the two-year-old, “Would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bedtime story?” is pretty heady stuff, because he doesn’t see the limits.

As for the teen, who may see the limits of what you offer, look closely at the issue confronting you. If it’s, say, buying a dress, decide your parameters and then let the teen see what she can work out within them. Your limits might be budget (“Not more than X dollars”), something about style (that might be, “Your father has to approve of it, too”), and perhaps maintenance (“If you buy something that needs dry cleaning, you’ll have to pay for that from your own earnings”). It’s a nicely complex challenge, and she gets to rise to the occasion.

Independence is the ability to make decisions for oneself. It feels good at any age. Given a well-structured set of choices, a chore that once brought on sulks or a tantrum now ends in a smile. Two-year-olds are old enough to LEARN to make decisions for themselves, and that’s when they should start. The approach for the older child is to ask, “How can we both win here?” Most teenagers will come up with unique and not altogether unreasonable alternatives. Keep an open mind, and you grow with your child. When at last you put them to work on problems, the two of you will be drawn closer, rather than, as before (when you pulled rank), not speaking for a week.

This is all win/win theory. Trouble is, most of us grew up with a win/lose approach, in which we, as children, lost, while our parents made sure to win. Win/win is positive parenting. Everybody wants to win, and everybody can.

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