If you give a toddler a choice…

TulipTreeElm House Blog, tuliptree3 Comments

By Bee

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk. Most of us know the slippery slope that follows the opening line to Laura Numeroff’s beloved books. You give a little, annnnnnnnnddd before you know it a mouse has the run of your house and is making all sorts of demands.

I was curious about the end to this statement, “If you give a toddler a choice…”

I find at work that I am often careful about the number of choices I offer the children. Children can be overwhelmed by choices, especially if we are trying to bargain with them, and often respond by digging in their heels. For example, if I have a child who is in underwear and doesn’t want to sit down to pee, I stick firm to the choices. You can pee now, or in two minutes.  I don’t offer up a bunch of extra choices. “Would you like a different staff member? Who? Would you like a friend to join you? This friend? That friend? Do you want us to go? Stay?” I have learned over time that the more choices I offer, the more likely I am to witness a child crumble under the weight of all that pressure. Sometimes less is more.

However, the human experience is nothing if not contradictory, and these past two weeks I found myself  looking for ways that I could add choice into the children’s lives.

I felt inspired to do this because most often, children do not have a choice. Period. They don’t get to choose what they wear. They don’t get to choose if they come to school. They don’t get to choose when they get out of bed. They don’t get to choose their classroom or teacher. They don’t get to choose what we have for lunch. They don’t get to choose our schedule. They don’t get to choose whether or not to get into their car seat. They don’t get to choose to eat while running around. They don’t get to choose when we lay down for nap. I could spend all day listing things the children have no say in. Most of their lives happen without a lot of input from them. This feels both necessary, and very sad. I wanted to reclaim some choices for the children.

I started simple at afternoon snack in the nest.

“Would you like your napkin folded, or unfolded?”









The children were elated! A choice! They quickly clamored to tell me their preference, voices joyfully ringing out against one another. I have continued to ask at every snack. “Folded or unfolded?” There hasn’t been a single child whose choice is consistent. This tells me several things:

  1. Children enjoy having choices simply for the freedom it affords them.
  2. Children enjoy -and have a right to- experimentation.
  3. Our choices are a reflection of our self. They can even act as a social calling card.

Offering this choice costs me nothing. It doesn’t add extra time or work to my day in any way, shape, or form. However, the return is huge! Lets look a little closer:

  1. Children enjoy having choices simply for the freedom it affords them. Children are often told all the things they don’t know or can’t do. We strip away their power in an attempt to keep them safe. “That’s hot, it is only for grown ups.” “Gates are for teachers.” “Outlets are tricky, and not safe for children.” When we give children choices we say to them. YOU know about yourself. YOU know about the world. YOU are capable. YOU are strong, and smart, and wise and I TRUST YOU! How affirming is that? How critical to one’s sense of self?
  2. Children enjoy -and have a right to- experimentation. There is no way to truly learn about our world, and our life, without experimenting. We have to try things. We need the room to make choices that don’t suit us. We need PRACTICE!!! Our entire lives we will try something, reflect, integrate that information, and then try again in a slightly different way. Offering children choices that have no consequences is incredibly fertile ground for developing a scientific mindset. With a folded/unfolded napkin, there is no consequence. If a children doesn’t like what they chose, they get a sense that things didn’t go how they wanted them to, but maybe they can choose differently another time. Choices with consequences are a bit more loaded. If you choose not to wear your coat out when it’s freezing, you will feel miserable, and then may not trust yourself to choose correctly in the future. This is why I want to give the children lots of opportunities to choose things without consequence, that way when they do make a choice that truly affects them and doesn’t go well, they will already have lots of positive experiences with choice to reflect back on. I want to teach the children to trust themselves, because I think trust in oneself is the most basic foundation of self-love.
  3. Our choices are a reflection of our self. Children deserve to be seen and heard. They have a right to their own experience and their own sense of self. As children age, social activities get trickier, and are much more susceptible to peer pressure. I believe it is invaluable for children to make choices in a social setting while young, so that they have practice both going with the flow, and standing their own ground. In regards to the napkins, I observed the children purposefully picking the same choice as dear friends, as if to say, “I’m with you!” and conversely I have seen the children pick the opposite of what their friends have chosen, as if asserting, “Today, I am my own person!” I cannot imagine how different my middle school experience might have felt, if as I toddler I had gotten comfortable saying, “Sorry about that group, today I am my own person!”

I was outside with my camera last week, and another choice opportunity presented itself. While I was snapping a photo, CW started talking to me to get my attention. Usually he is a pretty independent guy, so I was curious about what he wanted to share with me. He was showing me a truck, and was using body language to concisely tell me that he wanted me to photograph it. I smiled and nodded my consent, waiting for further instructions. He carefully placed the vehicles where I had been staging the children, and let me know when they were ready to photograph.












From an artistic perspective, I found the images fascinating, and began to wonder all sorts of things.

Then I showed CW his work.

















LOOK AT HIS FACE!!!! He is literally radiating joy and power. He KNEW that he had constructed those images. His pictures were on my camera! They had been captured in an adult way that felt valuable and real to him. He was jumping up and down, waving his arms, and yelling with pure excitement. I had let CW make a choice about what was worthy of being photographed, and in doing so I had invited him to be seen by me, and himself. It felt so intense and powerful in the moment, our actions almost saying,

“Hey dude, you have a great eye!”


“I think you already are.”










We built off this experience a couple days later. CW was the first to arrive in the nest, and I invited him to partake in some water colors with me.  He was very happy with the experience, but I wanted him to see the value in his work. I pointed out the Ikea painting on our wall. “CW do you see that painting? It decorates our classroom and brings in a lot of color. I noticed your painting also brings in a lot of color. I would like to hang it on the wall. Would that be okay with you?” CW began to do a lot of excited babbling and pointing. He ran over and touched the wall, confirming his understanding of my proposition.

“Yes. I would like to put your painting on the wall, but I’m not quite sure where it would go best. Will you help me decide?”

CW nodded enthusiastically.

I wish I had a video of this next portion. I held several water color paintings ALL OVER our classroom while CW directed me.


“No.” *babbling and pointing*

“Oh, I’m sorry. I misunderstood you. You wanted it more over here?”

*shakes head* “No!” *more babbling and emphatic pointing.*

CW rejected about 20-30 placements for each painting that he wanted up high, before nodding excitedly when I finally found the sweet spot. He had very serious ideas about how and where things should be hung. I took the second half of the pictures we had made and handed them to him.

“CW, I put up the high ones, and I think you had better hang up the ones down low. I don’t have the same finesse when it comes to decorating that you do. I’m not feeling confident that I know where they should go, but I trust that you will know the perfect place for each one.

CW nodded once firmly, we both knew I wasn’t qualified to finish the task.









And off he went, to place each of the paintings on the wall. It was interesting to observe, because CW adjusted every piece several times. He was really thinking about it. Some of the pieces he moved 3 or 4 times, and some he changed the orientation on.

We all know children are thinking and feeling beings, but how often do we take time to explore their preferences? How much can their choices teach us about them? I feel as if I am seeing only the tiniest tip of the iceberg when it comes to the power of choice in regards to toddlers.

I look forward to continuing this work, and in doing so inviting the children to share facets of themselves that I am still unfamiliar with. For now, I would finish my original wondering like this:

“If you give a toddler a choice, you will empower him to trust in himself and his ideas.” 

I invite all of you to share any thoughts, wonderings, comments, or examples of choice that you offer your child in the space below.


3 Comments on “If you give a toddler a choice…”

  1. Thank you Bee. Your insights on choice are so helpful. I love the examples of simple choices we can offer and seeing through your words how those simple choices can give our children confidence and deepen their self-knowing.

  2. Oh, my heart! I love the idea of offering choices that have minimal consequences. As an adult, I really appreciate the satisfaction of having autonomy at my job (as one example) so it makes sense that a child would respond to this in such a positive way. Wow! Thanks for posting.

  3. Bee, your blog posts almost always bring tears to my eyes! Thank you for sharing such beautiful stories.
    Now I know why the kids have been asking me “why isn’t it folded?” at snack time on Thursdays and Fridays! I’ll start offering this choice immediately. — Joey

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