Why Kids Need the Chance to Choose


When kids are young (and even when they’re older!), it can seem like the best way to teach good behavior is by setting lots of rules and limits. And of course, children do need some limits set with love.

But as parenting expert Alfie Kohn explains in his book Unconditional Parenting, kids need “to be consulted rather than just constrained (1)”

Let’s take a look at what happens if we go overboard on limit-setting, as well as what benefits come from offering our kids the chance to choose.

Too Many Limits?

Sometimes parents set a lot of limits thinking that it’s the only way to get kids to do what they’re supposed to. However, having too many limits or being overly controlling (sometimes called authoritarian parenting) can cause problems for your kids. Here are a few examples (2).

  • More behavior problems. Instead of fixing the misbehavior, clamping down on kids can actually make the behavior problems worse! As Alfie Kohn explains, “‘Give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile’ turns out to be true primarily of children who have only been given inches in their lives” (1).
  • Poor moral development. Kids of authoritarian parents have a harder time regulating themselves and using moral reasoning.
  • Poor decision making. Because authoritarian parents make all the decisions, kids don’t get the practice they need to think and decide on their own (3). As they grow up, they have a harder time making good choices.

It turns out that if you take charge too much, then your parenting may backfire. 

On the other hand, what happens when parents offer their kids appropriate choices?

Benefits of Choice

Giving children choices whenever possible can help them both in the short term and the long term. Here are just a few of the benefits.

  • More cooperation. When kids feel like they’ve had a say in the decision, they’re much more likely to cooperate. Alfie Kohn explains that as parents try “to help children experience a sense of autonomy, these children are more likely to do what they’re asked and less likely to misbehave” (1).
  • More motivation. Giving children choice helps them be more motivated, engaged, and excited about the activity at hand. Daniel H. Pink explains in his book Drive, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement” (4) This is true for anything from practicing an instrument to learning in school.
  • Better decision making. If you want children to be able to make good decisions in the future, they need to practice! Kids learn best “not by following directions,” but by actually making choices themselves (1).

But Should We Always Let Them Choose?

At this point, you may be thinking, “Okay, great. But should we always let our kids choose?” The answer is, of course not! Children do need parents to guide them and set appropriate limits based on their age and ability, especially when it comes to health and safety.

That said, Alfie Kohn makes a good point: “Our default position ought to be to let kids make decisions about matters that concern them except when there is a compelling reason for us to override that right” (1).

So wheneer possible, give your kids the chance to choose. If it’s an issue that requires a parent to have the final say, try at least letting your kids have input in the decision-making process. Even if they can’t choose for everything, it will do a lot for them if they know you care about their thoughts and opinions.

The Chance to Choose

It may seem scary, but give it a try! Let your kids have the chance to choose today. And though you may not always be able to let them choose, getting their input when possible will make a huge difference.

As you offer the chance to choose, your kids will be more likely to cooperate and will become better at making their own choices in the future.

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Picture retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/choice-select-decide-decision-vote-2692466/.


1. Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. New York, NY: Atria Books.

2. Dewar, G. (2017). Authoritarian parenting: What happens to the kids? Retrieved from http://www.parentingscience.com/authoritarian-parenting.html

3. Trautner, T. (2017, January 19). Authoritarian parenting style. Retrieved from Michigan State University Extension website: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/authoritarian_parenting_style

4. Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

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