Andrea Loewen Nair: Connect-Four Parenting


How To Grow Kid Cooperation With The "Either/Or" Strategy

Use this simple parenting technique to get your kids moving


A positive parenting strategy that works well to reduce dawdling and increase cooperation is one I call the “either/or.” This is where a child is presented with a choice to make that still accomplishes the task at hand.

Offering choices is a wonderful way to grow problem-solving skills; however, giving too many options can cause frustration. This method involves providing the child with a choice between only two options.

As Rick Ackerly states in his book THE GENIUS IN EVERY CHILD, “Humans have a natural inclination to be decision makers, to be Selves, and we adults play an important role as children experience their interdependence with the world in ever-widening circles of complexity. We have to do two things at once, (1) push back when Self is not doing what the environment requires Self to do and (2) love each Self unconditionally as we are making our demands and saying no.” (The “Self” refers to his daughter nicknaming herself, “Self” like this, “Self do it.”)

The principal behind the “either/or” is to parent in a positive way that includes firm limits, while giving the child decision-making power. When a child feels (s)he is constantly being told what to do, a feeling of counterwill can develop, which can actually push the child to do the opposite of what is instructed. The “either/or” reduces this counterwill and the associated power-struggle that can happen.

Here is how it works!

Establish two choices, both of which your child is capable of doing and are acceptable to you.

Begin your instruction with, “You may either” or “You can either.” You could also use, Are you…, Can you…, Would you…

Provide the first choice in age-appropriate language, like this: “You may either get into your car seat on your own...”

Say, “OR.”

Follow that with the next choice, like this: “You may either get into your car seat on your own, or I will lift you.” *Do not add an “okay?” or “please” at the end of this, as it changes the statement to a yes/no question, where the child can shout, “NO!”

Ask for him/her to choose, “You may either walk here to put your shoes on or I will carry you. Which do you want?” or “Which is your favourite?” or “What is your pick?”

If the child refuses to choose, you could make a game of it, “I bet you can’t choose before I count backwards from 6” (close your eyes). Or something fun like, “Are you either getting into the car walking or like a rocket?" (quickly pick him or her up and shoot her out the door while making rocket sounds!). You could also use another either/or like, “Either you are choosing or I get to. Do you want to?” This could be simplified as, “You choose or I will.”

As with any parenting strategy like this one or the very helpful “when/ then,” children are more apt to respond if they feel connected with you. Keeping your child’s attachment tank full each day will improve cooperation. Also, using transition signals and fun with younger children will increase the odds of getting your little one to follow your lead.

Here are some wonderful examples of how parents from my Facebook page community use the “either/or” in their daily lives:

  • “Can you do it yourself or do you need me to help you?”
  • Our 2.5yo is still relatively new to using the potty, so "We're going in the car. Do you want to use the potty now or after I get the baby ready?" works better than "We're going in the car. Time to use the potty!"
  • “Do you want to change your diaper in the living room or the bedroom? Do you want water in the pink sippy cup so that you can carry it or in the green cup and you can sit at the table?” Lots of opportunities to use the either/or with my 2-year-old!
  • Oh, and when the answer is "no," to both choices (and there is no other option—I will let my daughter contribute her own acceptable choice if she thinks of one), I give her the "Either you can choose, or I'll choose for you" option. It doesn't prevent a meltdown, but it does give me a firm line to hold. Sometimes, it spurs a grudging choice, sometimes she'll rush to pick the opposite of whatever I've chosen for her, and sometimes she fights me all the way. But I feel much more confident and in control than when I'm just bossing her around and she's defiant, which helps me respond to any meltdowns with empathy.
  • “Do you want me to start brushing your teeth or do you want me to finish up?”
  • “We're leaving the playground in one minute. Would you like to go on the slide or swings one last time?”
  • “When we cross the street/parking lot you can either hold my hand or get buckled into the stroller/in the grocery cart.”
  • “Either you can pick out your own clothes or I can pick out clothes for you.”

“Either/ors” also work really well when it is time to eat. Registered Dietitian, Sarah Remmer, had these two examples to add:

  • “Would you like to have carrot sticks and dip with dinner or steamed broccoli with melted cheese?”
  • “Would you like your peas mixed into your macaroni or on the side so that it doesn't touch your macaroni?”

These are two examples I often use: “It’s tidy time. You may either pick two songs to clean up to or I can set the timer to 10 minutes. Which one?”

“Bedtime! Are we getting upstairs doing the crabwalk or backwards?” Then, “EEK! How do you do the crabwalk up stairs?” (I change up the two options each day, which in itself has become a game.)

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