As a college student working at a Christian camp, I was taught a simple mantra to help with the behavior of campers. I remembered this statement when it was time to guide children to change activities, begin devotions, head to bed, or listen in chapel. This simple sentence was repeated so frequently that I still hear it more than 20 years later in the voices of the coordinators who first shared this wisdom.
“Do not give a choice where a choice is not given.”
This same approach can be applied to many parenting moments. Scripture charges us, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). Children are called to obedience, but how can we make that happen? We will find ourselves in far fewer power struggles if we refrain from offering a choice when choice does not exist. There are times in each day when we need our children to comply. We need them to follow a direction in a timely fashion. We do not need them to evaluate the direction or to choose a response.
However, if we are not clear in our communication, we may be offering them a choice where a choice is not given.
Implied in these questions is a choice. The result will likely be spinach uneaten, pajamas not donned, toys left out.
Speak with the authority that God has given to you. Scripture says that children are to honor their father and mother. God put parents in charge, not children, so parents should assume the lead. It is a parent’s job to teach their children how to listen and obey, and how to wisely choose. If you really want to see an obedient response, remove the choice so that your voice carries authority instead of asking your child’s permission.
Direct and clear, these statements communicate what we would like our children to do and reduce the chance that they will choose differently. Teaching children to clean up after themselves and to exercise responsible behavior are not unreasonable expectations. It's training for the day when they are on their own and need to care for themselves and others. Basic responsibility should not be a choice. All children need to learn to discern, but not every decision contains a choice. There are times to offer choices, but there are also times when immediate compliance is necessary.
Being clear in your direction toward good behavior doesn't have to be cold or in a vacuum. You can also make things a game--"who can pick up the toys the fastest? " You can use routine schedules to your benefit, so that patterns set the expectations automatically--"First we pick the toys. Then it's bath time. Then we read a story. Then it's bedtime, every night."
Meeting your expectations is not really a choice, but there may be options so the child can exercise some control. Cleaning up is an expectation, but you might give a choice of either putting away laundry or putting away toys first. Getting ready for bed now is an expectation, but putting on PJs first or brushing teeth first is an option. Do not give a choice where a choice is not given, but give options you can live with.
As parents, we can exercise wisdom so that our children know when obedience is expected. Wisdom is a gift from God that he freely gives to his children (James 1:5). We can respond better to our children when we slow down enough to be responsive rather than just reactive. So take a deep breath before issuing instructions. As we lean on God’s understanding rather than our own, he will make the path clear.
Offer a myriad of choices each day so that children can practice decision-making while the decisions are small. Let them learn to process decisions while understanding that there are non-negotiables that they must respond to in a way that is responsible and clear.
Teaching our kids to follow directions and choose with wisdom has spiritual implications as well. Our desire as parents is that our children recognize God’s voice and respond with obedience. The day will come when they will hear, “Take up your cross and follow me,” or “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra