How to hold kids accountable for their choices

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This past weekend, my husband, toddler and I came home from the rose garden close to nap time. Once home, we offered him two choices: “Do you feel like napping now, or do you want to nap in half an hour?” We weren’t surprised when he chose to nap later, expecting him to want to settle in at home first before conking out in bed.

When half an hour elapsed and we announced that nap time was here, he protested: “Want to stay in the living room.”

We then reminded him about the choice he made, and how it was him who decided when to nap. Miraculously, that simple reminder helped him understand (or at least believe there was some logic to this napping business) that his very own choices determined his nap time. Maybe he felt that since he made the decision to nap at a certain time, that the idea must be a good one.

He was held accountable for the choices he made.

We’ve since applied this same accountability to other circumstances, including giving him options on which food to eat or what activity he wants to do next. And so far he has accepted responsibility for what he chose. In addition to a higher likelihood of following through with the choices that they make, children also benefits from accountability in other ways:

  • They learn that consequences follow choices and actions. Assuming that parents follow through with consequences, kids will realize that their choices have a direct relation to what comes next.
  • They are more likely to think through and be deliberate with their choices knowing that each one bears different consequences, rather than spouting off impulsive actions.
  • They feel like a contributing member of the family. When we take their choices into consideration and especially when we follow through with consequences, they’ll learn that they too can be decision-makers in the family and that their choices bear weight. If we’re fickle with the consequences to their choices, they might learn instead that we may not always take them so seriously.

Keep in mind, however, that kids can’t be held accountable for everything. For one thing, kids don’t have a choice all the time—if it’s cold, they should wear a jacket, regardless of whether they would choose to or not. They’re also too young to bear the responsibility of being 100% accountable for their choices and shouldn’t be burdened with choice-making for every possible action—that’s a job for parents, not kids. And sometimes you just have to pick your battles.

Lastly, too many choices can inundate everyone, even adults. According to psychologist and author Barry Schwarz’s The Paradox of Choice, offering people a bazillion choices isn’t freeing; in fact too many choices often stump people into not making any at all, whereas offering a few choices helps make clearer decisions. That may be why I much prefer shorter menus at restaurants than the ones with hundreds of fine-print size options.

As our toddler grows up, he’ll be held more accountable for his choices as he begins to assume more responsibilities and is given new privileges. With consistent consequences, he’ll hopefully learn to weigh his choices and follow through on the ones he makes.

How has the opportunity to choose affected your kids? What accountability do you enforce in your home?


5 thoughts on “How to hold kids accountable for their choices

  1. Great! I think teaching our kids choices and consequences early is a great way to teach them the process of decision making. Not that they completely grasp the logical way of thinking yet, but I think it’s a wonderful thing to consider.
    We also emphasize that the choices we make have specific consequences. Spelling it out ahead of time helps a lot.

    • Right on, Erika. Sometimes it’s never to early to start something if only for the fact that it trains *parents* to get in the habit early on.

  2. We try to give our guy lots of choices to help him think for himself and be a problem solver. Sometimes it works. When it’s time to leave home, for example, and he doesn’t want to go I try to give him some choices about it: which shoes do you want to wear? Will you walk to the car or should I carry you? Lots of times that helps get him out of his funk, but when it doesn’t I carry him to the car with shoes in hand. So if you see us and he’s wearing sandals with socks or loafers with shorts…he picked his shoes and I was happy to get to the car without a fuss!

    • Lynda, so far my toddler has yet to walk out in mismatched outfits, but I realize this is a potential reality as we offer him choices in what to wear! lol. Give and take, right?

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