Empowering Children with Choices

By Kelly Bartlett, certified positive discipline educator and leader for East Portland API, Oregon USA

Kelly BartlettCertainly there comes a point in our children’s lives where we need them to take on some added responsibility for themselves. Sometimes this happens naturally: Our child suddenly wants to be a “big kid” and do things for himself. As my son used to put it when he was 1 year old, “Me…do it…own!” The age in which young children want to do tasks and chores on their own is wonderful, isn’t it? The newness of their independence and capabilities is so exiting. It is the age of autonomy.

Then comes the next phase: After children’s realization of their sense of autonomy comes their developing sense of initiative. It’s a difference of realizing what children can do versus what they choose to do. Suddenly, parents find themselves nagging when they once had to simply suggest clean-up as a fun game. We become engaged in power struggles and start to dread the moment when we must announce that it’s time to stop playing and put the toys away because we’re very aware of the response we’ll get.

It is important that parents take care not to enable children during this stage, thus discouraging their developing sense of initiative, but to empower them. When we empower our children, they realize their capabilities and begin to learn valuable life skills. Consider the following examples of statements regarding clean up time:


  • It is clean-up time. Why are you just sitting there? (Rhetorical)
  • All of your friends are able to help. I wonder if you are a baby, not a big girl? (Shaming)
  • Pick up the toys now, or you will sit on the chair instead of joining us for lunch. (Threatening)
  • I am going to set the timer for 3 minutes and these better be picked up when it dings. (Implies “or else”)
  • We go through this every day!  I am tired of it. (Conveys hopelessness)
  • If you don’t want your toys thrown away, you’d better pick them up right now! (Threatening)


  • I have seen you pick up your toys before. I know you can do it. (Shows faith with a reminder of what the child can do.)
  • You were really having fun. It is hard to stop playing to clean up. How about I pick up the squares and you pick up the rectangles?  (Acknowledges feelings first/divides up the work with help)
  • [Putting a gentle hand on child’s shoulder] Do you want to put the big blocks away first, or the small blocks? (Uses non-verbal connection and limited choices)
  • What ideas do you have to get the toys picked up? (Asks for input)
  • What is supposed to be happening now? (Check for the child’s knowledge/understanding)
  • It is more fun if we work together. What would you like me to do to help, and what will you do? (Connects)

The difference in how we speak to our kids is astounding. One assumes inadequacy and has an air of disrespect, while the other is considerate and gives children the opportunity to work on their senses of confidence and competence. The ability to empower children is at the heart of positive discipline. It helps kids grow to develop valuable social skills, and simultaneously improves parents’ communication and connection with their children.

3 thoughts on “Empowering Children with Choices”

  1. Thanks so much for this succinct and very useful reminder on how to talk to our kids to engage with them and provide empowerment. The compare and contrast style you have used made it instantly accessible and hopefully very memorable to me. I’m working on it and will continue to do so.

  2. My husband and I are trying to start our family and have been discussing parenting and discipline and whatnot…I’m not afraid of anything yet except for the discipline…I’m not scared that there won’t be discipline…I’m just scared that we won’t know that right KIND of discipline to use (mostly because neither of our parents disciplined in healthy ways so we’re both new to proper and healthy ways of instilling discipline and responsibility in our children-growing up in our households we would’ve been screamed at or threatened) this helps tremendously, thank you, thank you, thank you!

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