The Principle of Choice in Parenting


Not long after we adopted our puppy Pluto, I started training him using a technique I found called it’s your choice. The concept is that you give your dog the choice to make a decision, but only one “choice” yields a reward. I did this by holding a bunch of juicy tidbits in my open hand, and when he moved in to gobble it up, I closed my fingers around the treats, preventing him from eating them.

Eventually he figured out that when he sits and waits patiently, my fingers don’t close and I offer him the treat. During the it’s your choice game, I don’t speak, or offer any encouraging cues or admonishments. I simply offer a choice – attempt to gobble up what’s in my hand and be denied, or sit and wait and you get the prize.

Now, while this article is definitely NOT about training a dog (or a child!), stay with me because I learned something really valuable about parenting from observing the principle of choice in these moments.

Parenting is challenging! There isn’t a mom out there who doesn’t struggle with at least one aspect of their parenting. It could be getting your kids to go to sleep, to help around the house, or stay off their devices; or it could be managing a child’s anxiety, or finding time to truly care for yourself. These struggles can be chronic, and are all very hard to deal with when you are in the thick of mothering.

For some, being in the throes of a conflict can dysregulate your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, leaving you feeling powerless, out of control, or overwhelmed. It’s in this state that you slip into a fight or flight response and get stuck …. which is just the moment when yelling, threatening, or punishing tend to come in.

But, here’s the thing. You always have some sort of choice…

The belief that you have no choice in a given situation is often unconscious and disguises itself as hopelessness or helplessness. Recognizing the thought that “I have a choice” in the way you respond or take action, can actually be a revelation in itself.

Take a moment to think about a scenario where you’re assuming you have (or had) no choice. Hold that scenario in your minds-eye as you consider the four strategies listed below:

>> The awareness that you have a choice can be an opportunity for growth. 

• How can I set better boundaries?
• How can I handle my feelings of anger and frustration better?

>> It can help to ask yourself: is this situation as urgent as I think it is?

• What’s really at risk if we are 10 minutes late today?
• Can this chore happen later in the day?

>> What are your options for reducing overwhelm?

• Connect to your breath (I know, I know … it’s always the breath. But it really does help!)
• Invite your partner or a supportive person in to the conversation, and allow them to support you.

>> What internal or external choices do I actually have in this moment?

• Internal choice: Is what I’m believing about my child in this moment really the truth?
• External choice: Pausing, and returning to the conversation later.

Of course, we are talking about complex human behavior here, so not every choice you make will yield the reward you desire. However, in those tough moments, exercising the principle of choice can help you make the shift away from your default reactions as a parent – which all too often work against you, your child and the relationship you share. 

It’s my hope that when you’re facing your next challenge as a mom, you remember these strategies and challenge yourself to choose a different course for your parenting. I know what you’re thinking, though – if only it was as easy as holding treats in your hand! 

Previous articleSeacoast Spectator Sports For Families
Next article4 Breakfast Ideas to Set You Up for Success During the Week
For over 12 years, Joni Lane, founder of Insight Coaching for Parents, has been helping mothers navigate the shifting waters of modern child-rearing. By combining practical, down-to-earth guidance, along with self inquiry and introspection, Joni creates a meaningful template for parents to trust and strengthen their parenting wisdom. Joni holds a BA in both Anthropology and Sociology, and a Master’s Degree in Photography. For the past 20 years she has been studying Nonviolent Communication with Marshall Rosenberg, participated in numerous workshops and programs on parenting, mindfulness, ritual and facilitation, and most recently, IFS (Internal Family Systems). She received a Master Coaching Certification with Joanna Lindenbaum, founder of the Applied Depth Practitioner Institute. Joni works one-on-one with private clients, as well as holding workshops for mothers, parent groups, schools, and corporate agencies on a variety of topics such as social media, authentic cooperation and communication, the myth of perfection and more. After living in Brooklyn, New York for over 20 years, she recently moved to New Hampshire where she is happily living close to the sea and woods with her 2 children and husband.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here