Giving Children Choices: Empowerment or Manipulation?

As a mom who devoured books and websites on attachment parenting and gentle discipline, I read about how important it is to give children choices.

Specifically, if I gave the children in my life two or three choices that were acceptable to me, then I would give children some control over their lives. They would feel good about having choices and I would feel good about “giving up control.”

Imagine my surprise when I started to implement this advice. Very early on I came up against the truth of this kind of choice.

The oldest child in my life was around 3. I was in a hurry to get out the door. You know the scene I am going to describe. You’ve experienced it.

Mom in a hurry, child reluctant to get going. Mom getting frustrated, maybe even angry.

So I hold up two pairs of shoes and say, “Which shoes do you want to put on?” I didn’t say “Do you want to put on your shoes?” I gave her a “choice.”

Shee turned to me, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “That is no choice!”

Sh*t! She called my bluff. She knew that I wasn’t really giving her a choice.

It wasn’t until two years later that I came to the realization that I had never questioned my right to manipulate the choices of children.

At the core of our culture’s view of children, is the need to control them.

Without externally imposed control, children will not make the right choices. At least we are taught to believe this about children.

We believe that giving choices is empowering to children. But too often, we artificially limit choices in order to stay in control of children’s lives. This is not empowerment, it is manipulation.

Manipulation attempts to anesthetize people so they will not think. ~Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In essence, by manipulating choices, I take away the need for children to think critically about the world around them and the choices they might freely make for themselves.

I want to be a parent who is liberated from the paradigm of domination and control that is so prevalent in our culture. The reality is I struggle with the ways in which I have internalized this paradigm.

Not only did I experience being dominated as a child through the social institutions in our culture, I learned equally well how to wield the tools of domination, including manipulation, with the children in my life.

I present a sanitized, constructed version of the world with choices that I am comfortable with, and thus maintain my power over them.

I give them the illusion of self-empowerment without losing my own status as the person who controls their lives.

I can continue to move them toward the objectives I have chosen for them while feeling a bit self-righteous about how enlightened I am for giving them choices.

But ultimately this strategy fails. It creates disconnection and distrust between parents and children. Children know when they are being controlled and manipulated. And at some point they will decide not to trust the person doing the manipulation.

A fundamental need for all humans beings is autonomy and self-determination.

But our culture doesn’t treat children as human beings. Too often we see them as less than human because of their age and size.

We believe that adults have the right to autonomy and self-determination, but children do not.

We obviously have the choice to continue to live with this belief.

We have the choice to continue to live with the aftereffects of denying autonomy and self-determination to children solely based on our belief that they do not deserve to be treated with the same respect as adults.

What is the impact of denying autonomy to children?

Children grow up believing that if you are stronger and more powerful you have the right to control the choices of another human being.

Children grow up believing that they cannot be trusted, that they won’t make the right choices.

Children grow up believing that their intuition and inner voice is wrong.

Why? Because adults require children to ignore the choice that is right for them. All for the greater purpose of having them fit into the expectations of a culture that values conformity and obedience.

Not only do individuals lose out, as a society we lose out.

We raise children into adulthood who look outside of themselves for their value and worth.

Because they’ve never had the chance to make real choices that have real meaning for them, they’ve lost touch with their inner voice and authority.

They make choices that please others, that meet the expectations of those around them, rather than making choices that are true and right.

They give up their self-respect to maintain the approval of external authority.

Rather than have internally motivated, passionate individuals enrich our society, we raise children to believe that the choices handed to them by institutions, bosses, corporations, and the government are the only correct choices to be made.

However, it may feel very difficult as parents to give up control over the choices a child has.

We may be afraid of what will happen. We may worry about their health or their future prospects.

But giving up controlling choices doesn’t mean we step away from them.

Instead we are saying to them,

“I trust you.”

“I believe in you.”

“You have everything you need already within you.”

By building trust through letting go of control, they will want us to continue to be a part of their lives. We will continue to share their ups and downs, their mistakes and their triumphs. Because they know that we are there without judgment.

Giving up control may feel at first like a loss, but what we gain in our relationships with children is far, far greater than what we gave up.

Need some practical tips and more ideas about this issue? I answer the question I got asked the most after this article: So what do you do?

Read Part 2: What to do when you NEED to get out of the house and a child doesn’t want to go.

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