Give children directions

Q. When presented with a choice, our 4-year-old son has recently started asking, "Well, if you were me, what would you do?" in a whiny tone. If we don't give him the answer he's looking for, he repeats himself. Lately, we've been responding with, "I believe you can make good choices -- you choose whatever you want to do." That fails to satisfy him, however, and he will usually come back with "But if you were me, what would you choose?" And back and forth it can go. We suspect that this may be due to the fact that we've been giving his younger brother -- a toddler -- a lot of attention recently. How should we be handling this?
A. Most problems involving a child's behavior are best handled proactively, in a manner that prevents, or at least minimizes, the occurrence of the problem. In this case, I suspect that you may be giving your son too many choices. There is a difference between presenting a choice to a child and letting the child choose. "What would you like to wear today?" is an example of the former while "It's time for you to go get dressed" is an example of the latter. Today's parents have a tendency, in fact, to present instructions in the form of questions, feeling perhaps that this is a more respectful approach. The problem is that young children are comforted by clear exercises of parental authority, and questions leave unclear what it is the parent truly wants, thus elevating the possibility the child will ignore or defy the "instruction" or, as is the case with your son, act confused. Said another way, parental indecision is likely to breed indecision on the part of a child.
Show authoritywhen beliefs matter
One of the things I stress in my talks and workshops is the importance of parents acting as if they have a firm belief in the legitimacy of their own authority. In fact, an attitude of confidence and certainty in one's purpose and the decisions one makes is essential to the effective conveyance of authority in any setting. A young child's sense of security depends fundamentally on the secure knowledge that (a) his parents love him unconditionally and (b) are capable of protecting and providing for him under any and all circumstances -- i.e., powerful love and powerful authority in equal measure. Parents who ask lots of questions fail, but certainly with the best of intentions, to convey an unequivocal sense of powerful authority.
By responding to a choice you give him with the question "What would you do?" your son is simply asking you to be unequivocal, to project a strong sense of authority, to un-confuse him. He's asking you, in the only way he knows how, to act like you know what you're doing and like you know exactly what it is that you want from him. And by the way, I don't think this has anything to do with giving his younger brother a lot of attention. That sort of "psychological explanation" is only going to further confuse the situation.
The solution to this problem is simple enough: Stop asking your son so many questions. To return to my previous example, instead of "What would you like to wear today?" simply tell him to go get dressed. If he asks what you would wear, go into his room, pick out his clothes for him, and say, "Here. Put these on."
XJohn Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th Street, Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site: