Taking Back Control From My Toddler

Finding the confidence to parent

Children “need parents who are willing to lead, to insist on compliance, and to show them a safe way,” a quote from my current favorite child development book, Childwise. I think most parents are confident about issues regarding health and safety: wearing a seatbelt, staying out of the street, and taking your medicine are non negotiables.

However, parenting can often feel tricky when the area is grey. My princess cup story a few months ago tapped into this grey territory: what do we do when our child wants something their way? Keener wanted a princess cup instead of a blue cup and completely fell apart when he didn’t get what he wanted.

That moment helped me realize I needed to make a change. I couldn’t possibly have a 3 year old making the rules and calling the shots. In the two months since that happened, Grace (almost 21 months) has become MUCH more opinionated which only adds to the chaos. When they both want the orange snack cup, what is a mom to do?

Reading Childwise, and having many opportunities to practice, has helped reframe my thinking. In particular, I have been turning my wheels about choice. On the one hand, choice is incredibly powerful. As a first grade teacher, I often found choice to be the number one motivator. Do you want to write with a pen or a marker? Do you want to use the paper with 5 lines or 3 lines? Allowing kids to choose helps them take ownership for their behavior and therefore comply with our directions.

Childwise has me thinking about choice differently. In my mind I have always thought: I will give you a choice but the two choices both end in you complying. For example, Keener, you need to go to the bathroom before we leave. When met with a “But I don’t want to!” I resort to perceived choice:

  • You can go by yourself or mommy will go with you, you choose.
  • You can go standing up or sitting down, your choice.
  • You can pull your pants down by yourself or mommy will do it for you. Which do you choose?

More often than not, I feel like compliance is then only a few seconds away. (The book recommends using the phrase, “yes, mommy” which I plan to explore more in a future post. I have started using this more and more and have definitely seen a positive improvement in compliance.) However, when push comes to shove and I need him to go to the bathroom because we are already running late, giving him a “choice” usually gets the job done.

The Power of Choice

Childwise brings up the point that your child may be “addicted to choice.” At first, I was slightly put off by this idea. As someone who has always thought positively about choice, I read this with skepticism. “A child who is addicted to choice cannot emotionally cope in life when no choice is available to him.” This sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. This was the princess cup scenario. Without even being aware of it, I’m sure I was giving Keener a choice over his water cup. Then one morning I didn’t and he could not emotionally cope.

The book recommends assessing how bad the “addiction” is by doing a breakfast test. Pick a morning and tell your child what is for breakfast. See what happens… Do they accept this breakfast without protest? If so, “your child is probably able to handle a degree of freedom in decision-making in this area.” However, if your child was anything like Keener, you realize you may have a problem.

Keener has been eating pancakes for breakfast every morning for the better part of 6 months. When I “surprised” him the other morning and told him we were having scrambled eggs and an english muffin for breakfast, he expressed his disapproval. It wasn’t a full blown meltdown (like the princess cup and others) but he clearly did not like his lack of choice.

This was a turning point for me. As the book says, “thinking they’re helping their child succeed, parents can be setting him up to suffer.” Eeek.

So what do you do to correct it? Great question. I took Childwise’s advice and told Keener exactly what was going on. Keener, I have been giving you too many choices. Mommy is going to be making more choices which initially might make you feel upset. However, mommy is doing this to help you. Mommy wants you to learn to be flexible. Sometimes, Keener will get to choose but sometimes Mommy is going to choose. When mommy chooses, I expect you to say, ‘yes mommy.’

We are still in the early stages but it is going better than I anticipated. The book says it can take anywhere from 3 days to 3+ weeks to “break the addiction.” Most importantly, I feel like we are headed in the right direction.

I want him to be a flexible, compliant, enjoyable to be around kid. In order for that to come to fruition, I have to take back control and teach him the skills he needs to meet those expectations. Starting with an honest conversation, despite the fact he is only 3, was a good place for us to start.


  1. This is fascinating Jenny. My children are older now but I do think back on all the advice I received when they were toddlers encouraging me to allow them to choose (do you want to wear your sneakers or your sandals). Flexibility is key to getting along with others. It always seems that children who are the youngest in their family are more flexible than their older siblings which makes complete sense to me after reading your post. A 3 year old isn’t offered all those choices when their older siblings have to get to the school bus or in the car to drive to preschool. That child just has to come along for the ride…. As a result, they aren’t addicted to choice!

    • I didn’t think about the impact of birth order when writing this but you are totally right! This is also the case for self help skills; the older ones are quick to do everything for the younger ones. I sometime have to stop Keener from helping Grace do things she can now do for herself. Great to see him helping but not at the expense of overpowering!

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