Welcome back!  This is Chapter 13 of the “Parent’s Toolshop® Guidebook: 5 Easy Steps to Responding Helpfully to Any Parenting Challenge.

Here’s where we are in the Universal Blueprint® Problem-Solving System / PASRR Formula:

Prevent Problems from starting or worsening … with the

       Prevention Toolbox: Cooperation Toolset

So far, you’ve learned two of the five-star tools (): D.I.P. and “Don’t Say Don’t.” The Cooperation Toolset is the only toolset that actually has two five-star tools…and this is one of them….your third five-star tool ().

Today, we will conquer what is one of the most common and frustrating aspects of parenting — something every parent has experienced at some time or another — power struggles. They go something like this:

You say, “Please do ____.”

Your child says, “I don’t want to” or “Do I have to?” or “In a minute.”

Maybe you wait a few minutes then ask again.

They balk, refusing to do what you asked or delaying or making up a lame excuse to avoid doing it.

You get more frustrated and use more firm requests…then demands…eventually threatening punishment if they don’t do it NOW!

They start negotiating. You want to be reasonable. Before you  know it you realize you’ve been going round and round in circles.

You finally pull out your trump card and say, “Just do it because I said so!”

Feeling locked in a power struggle can be one of the most frustrating aspects of parenting. It takes your energy away from other things and, over time, can negatively affect your relationship with your child.

Of course, you don’t mean to get into a tug-of-war with your child – but it happens – unfortunately all too easily. In my parenting classes, I do a really fun activity that shows how easily many of us head into power struggles without thinking twice and how cooperating can help each person get what they want. You can watch a video of this activity at my YouTube channel. The title is “Cooperation vs. Competition” (5:02 min.).

Did you know that there is one tool you can use that will greatly reduce the odds that power struggles will occur in the first place? Further, if you do find yourself in one, this tool can get you back on track.

This tool is one of the most effective and useful tools you can use; it’s called offering choices within limits. It is the third of five five-star tools () you’ll learn and need to use and master to get maximum results.

Now every parent wants their child to do what they want them to do the first time they ask them to do it. Often, “Don’t Say Don’t” will accomplish this goal.

When you encounter any resistance, or to prevent resistance, use this tool. All you do is shift the focus from arguing or negotiating to the possible options within your rules or limits. Here are a few guidelines for offering choices effectively. (You can also watch a free video about using Choices Within Limits found in Lesson #12.)

Don’t give a choice if there is no choice. “Do you want to take your medicine?” sounds like the child has a choice. Instead, say “Do you want to take chewable medicine or liquid?” Also avoid saying, “The trash cans need to be brought in, okay?” “Okay” sounds like you are asking if the child agrees with your request. Say what you really mean, “Do you understand?” or “Did you hear me?”

State your bottom line, which is the minimum standards that must occur, what is non-negotiable. Then offer choices within those limits. The most common mistake parents make when using choices is not being at their bottom line, which can lead to children feeling like everything is negotiable.

Here’s an example of what I mean: If you say, “You have to take a bath at seven o’clock for twenty minutes, with no bubbles and four toys”, you could potentially get into a power struggle about each request. What is your bottom line? Most parents will say, “to take a bath.” But if you say, “you need to take a bath” and the child says, “Can I take a shower?” any reasonable parent is going to say, “Sure!” Now the child thinks taking a bath is negotiable and may try to negotiate every request. Instead, ask yourself, why was a shower okay? Because it still got the child clean.

So let me ask you again, “What is your bottom line?” The child getting clean is your real bottom line, a bath or a shower are the choices for how they get clean. That’s the importance of getting to and stating your bottom line. Your bottom line is usually one of the “SHARP RV Parent problem issues.” (See Lesson #4.) There is no negotiating these bottom lines: Safety, Health, Appropriateness, Rights, Property, Rules and Values. You can stand firm. Then shift the focus to the choices within the bottom line.

Never argue about the choices. Simply state your bottom line, stand firm on that, and then continue to shift the focus to the choices within that bottom line, to find a win/win solution.

Choices involve the following types of statements:

∙      “Which would you like?”

∙      “How many do you want?”

∙      “Are you going to ___ or ___?”

∙      “When do you plan to ___?”

∙      “You can ___ or ___, you decide.”

∙      “How do you plan to ___?”

∙      “Do you want to ___ or___?”

Make the choices respectful to both the parent and child. If we say, “Either quit throwing the ball in the house or I’ll take it away,” we are making a threat, not offering a respectful, fair choice. An effective, mutually respectful choice would be, “You can either play with the ball outside or with another toy inside. You decide.” Here, parents address their safety concerns and respect the child’s need or desire to play.

Allow the child to offer choices. “We can have meatloaf or fish for dinner, unless you have an idea for something else that’s nutritious and delicious.” Remember to state your bottom line, unless there are truly unlimited choices. Don’t be overly rigid about forcing children to pick one of your choices. Any choice that meets your bottom line is okay. Your goal is to reach a win/win solution.

If there is not a choice about if something will happen, offer a choice about how or when it can happen. When you set reasonable limits and then shift the focus to how or when children can meet these limits, they still feel they have some power — their choices. When facing a win-all/lose-all risk or getting a guaranteed win-some/win-some solution, most people (especially children) will choose win/win.

Helpful Hints:

  1. If you say “Do you want milk or juice” and your child says, “I want both,” you can say, “Which one first?”
  2. If you offer a choice and your child responds with “neither,” you can say, “That’s not one of your choices” or, even better, state the bottom line and let the child figure out the options.
  3. If children persist, you can say, “You can decide or I’ll decide for you, but you might not like what I pick.” If they still don’t decide, do not go out of your way to intentionally pick something they don’t like as punishment for not making a choice. Try to pick what you think they would like or what best meets your bottom line. If they complain, remind them they can make the choice themselves next time.
  4. Indecisive children sometimes feel overwhelmed by choices. Keep choices simple and use them less often. Still encourage them, however, to make decisions, try new things, and take risks. This is an important skill for them to develop.
  5. When indecisive children finally choose, confirm their choice. Say “Okay, you want cereal, right? Once I pour the milk on the cereal, I expect you to eat it.” Be clear about what you are willing and unwilling to do.
  6. If children don’t like the choice they made (or you made in example #3 above), acknowledge their disappointment and remind them that they can choose another option next time.

Age-Appropriate Choices

  • Young children need limited choices. Two simple choices are usually enough. The number of choices can increase as the child’s intellect and maturity develop.
  • Older children need broader choices or it starts power struggles or long negotiations.
  • Teens need open-ended choices. State your bottom line and ask them to come up with a plan. Express your confidence in their ability to make an appropriate decision. Remember to get agreements with specific time frames, if the time limit isn’t open-ended.

One final note about choices: Some parents have so much success using choices within limits that they use it in every situation. They forget that in some situations another tool may be more appropriate. Don’t overuse choices or feel you have to give children a choice about everything. Use them when you need a win/win solution to prevent or stop power struggles.

This is the last tool in the Cooperation Toolset we will learn in the Prevention Toolset. There are several more Cooperation Tools, but you have learned the two most important, five-star (starstarstarstarstar) ones: “Don’t Say Don’t” and “No No’s” (which we could group together as “Tell children what they CAN do”) and “Offering Choices Within Limits.” To learn more details about how to use these tools and to learn the other cooperation tools, listen to the session from the Lunch & Learn Prevention Audio Home Study Package called, “Get Cooperation Without Squeezing the Juice Out of Kids.”


  1. If you’ve had an over-controlling parenting style in the past (Power Patrol or Perfectionistic Supervisor from Lesson 2), using this skill and other cooperation tools may require a mindset shift and attitude adjustment — from demanding obedience to engaging cooperation. To do this, I recommend listening to the Cooperation audio listed above and also the session from the Lunch & Learn Foundation Building Home Study Package called, “Blended or Tossed: What’s Your Parenting Style?”
  2. The language of choices is one of the most important, versatile parenting tools you can have in your parenting Toolshop®. In fact, we will be referring back to it in two other lessons. So start now and continue to practice this skill, to master it better before we get to the tough stuff, misbehavior and discipline. Here’s a practice exercise:Reword the following statements into choices:
    a.  Your toddler wants to play in the sand box in his good clothes.

    b.  Your preschooler resists having her hair washed.

    c.  Your elementary school-aged child needs to work on a book report.

    d.  Your teenager is trying to decide where to apply for jobs.

  3. Feel free to share your answers and progress with using choices in limits in the comments section.

Here is a list of the recommended resources in this lesson: