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Tell me what to choose so I can... not choose that!

Z is seven.

Z often comes up to me holding two things in her hands and asking: which one do you think I should choose?

Which one do you think of these two pieces of apple should I eat first?

Which colour should I use first?

What animal should I draw first?

Which pair of pants should I wear?

For a while I would answer with some version of: well, which one would you like to...

Which led to Z getting upset.

Until one day she held out two pieces of candy and asked: which one do you think I should eat, the red one or the pink one?

I was tired.

I wanted no decisions.

I wanted peace ad quiet.

The pink one I said almost against myself.

Z looked up at me, smiled and replied: Nah, I'm going to eat the red one. And happily walked off.

Just like that.

What just happened?

When I paused long enough to notice what was happening it hit me - we were both trying to support Z's need for autonomy and choice. Only each of us had our own strategy.

As soon as I realized that, I was able to let go of mine.

Holding strategies lightly

In Nonviolent Communication (NVC) we make a distinction between needs and strategies. Needs are universal qualities of life we all need to survive and thrive - like love, belonging, play, choice, autonomy. Strategies are our ideas of how we can meet those needs - these are specific to us.

When Z asked which one do you think..., I believe we both recognized her need was for autonomy and choice.

My way (strategy) of supporting her in getting her need for choice and autonomy met: when she asks me "Which one should I choose?" to answer with "Which one would you like to?"

Z's way of supporting her in getting her need for choice and autonomy met: Asking me which one she should choose and then choosing the exact opposite.

I was holding tight to all the developmental knowledge I had, all my NVC understanding, all the principles and insights. But these are all my strategies. These were all my ideas of how to support Z in meeting her needs.

The point I missed was that Z knew exactly how she wanted to be supported, and the only thing she needed from me was to notice that and play along.

The point I missed was that as soon as I recognized the need underneath her question, I could let go of my strategy, and let her choose.

Why did I not notice that?

The question of trust

We miss this, because it requires a lot of trust. And...

To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves [...] and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. John Holt

This does not mean that if our child says I want chocolate for breakfast we say sure, you know best.

But as soon as we recognize the need, we can be open to the ways in which this need can be met - that is, not all of those strategies have to be our own ideas.

What is the need underneath chocolate?




As soon as I see underneath the strategy/idea/way of meeting that need, I can let go of my own, and explore. It won't always mean going along wit our child's idea - and therein lies trust.

Trust that they know what they need.

Trust that they know themselves.

Trust that if we let go of our strategies, it doesn't mean our needs don't matter.

Trust that even if this need doesn't get met in the exact way I want right now (chocolate for breakfast), it still matters.

All of the knowledge, principles, insights are fantastic.

But possibly the best parenting manual is the child right in front of you.

Can you trust that your child knows what they need?

Can you trust yourself?

As always, we start with ourselves.

With care,


PS. If you would like to get a list of needs we use in NVC, get in touch with me and I will email it to you.

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