Giving a toddler choices may seem like a bad idea—a really bad idea. But, I needed to find an alternative to the “because I said so” I was so used to hearing growing up. That ultimatum was not working for us, and I could tell he was struggling with not being heard, which lead to inevitable meltdowns over the silliest things. Call me an optimist, but I feel that I’m outsmarting him a bit. I’m giving him a chance to make his own choices, but what he doesn’t realize is I have steered him in the direction I want him to go.

Not to say it doesn’t come with challenges as we establish who holds the power in this household (spoiler alert: It’s Mommy and Daddy). It also came with a newly coined phrase from my son, “Tell me what my options are?” Which sort of makes me cringe every time I hear it.

But I’ve tried to structure how we provide options to help him feel independent and in control of his choices, but also not create a three-year-old monster.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

I offer a max of two options

“What would you like for snack?” is a slippery slope. One, I open myself up to a crazy request that I may not be able to fulfill. Plus, I imagine the answer is always an ice pop or some sweet treat that I wouldn’t want him to have.

By instead giving him only two things to choose from it helps me keep my sanity and ensure he is still getting a snack that I deem acceptable. But he doesn’t realize that—he thinks that he is in control of his choice—which he is, but only to a certain extent.

I pick my battles (and set both of us up for success)

There are a few areas where I let his imagination soar in terms of options, and ironically most have to do with bedtime. When it comes to what PJs he wants to wear and what two books we read before bed, those are choices he can make himself. As we are winding down for the night I have found this actually leads to a calmer bedtime routine.

It is worthy to note, the bookshelf in his bedroom does not contain long books, they are all “bedtime length” and the PJ drawer is always stocked with seasonally appropriate options. AKA no fleecy footie PJs in August. Those are hidden in a separate drawer.

I let him negotiate (to a degree)

Most nights there are severe negotiations that occur in this household around screen time. You would think there was a multi-million dollar business acquisition at stake. I have found that by giving him the option to choose makes for a more peaceful experience.

For example, “if you want to watch another Paw Patrol, that means only one book before bed instead of two.” I allow him to make that choice for himself. If he really wants to watch that additional episode, something else will have to be sacrificed to make a timely bedtime, and avoid the overtired meltdown.

I love watching his face as the wheels turn in his head and he computes which option will allow him to stay up just a few minutes later.

I ask him what he needs

My son has had a hard time at school drop-off, so I was determined to find a solution. We read all the books, tried all the talking and all the bribing. Nothing worked.

Finally one day I asked him, “What do you need that Mommy isn’t giving you?” And he said, “so many kisses.” Cue simultaneous heart melting and heartbreak.

Of course I always gave him a kiss before I dropped him off, but he felt he needed more. So now, on the way to school every day he gets to choose the number of kisses he gets before he goes in the door. Today was “twenty-hundred” (working on counting is for another day).

Since we started the “you pick the amount of kisses” routine, he walks in happy and smiling every day…some days even giggling. What a change! Allowing him the ability to make his own choice has made for a much happier boy (and mama).

At the end of the day, what’s most important to me is to cultivate his confidence—and independence.

Let’s be honest—no one likes to be told what to do, especially a toddler. Allowing him to make choices on his own give him the confidence in his own decision-making ability. I may be projecting too far out, but I think that this confidence helps fuel his independence. He can be sure that he knows the right thing to do, or what will make him happy.

And a happy little man equals a happy mama, any day.