How do you best approach (if, at all) teaching children in the late toddler to preschool age groups about responsibility - not responsibility as in doing chores (which we have a good handle on), but as in making choices that have meaningful consequences?

One example of this is that when we go out for dessert, we let our almost-three year old choose to forgo dessert for a small toy (like a car) that is the same cost as the dessert we'd have bought him. This often works well, or at least without argument, when dessert is consumed at home or when the choice is made at the dessert place (where he often chooses the at-hand dessert).

However, if he chooses the toy and then after that, Mom or Dad get dessert, he often will through a tantrum if he's not allowed to eat a significant portion of said dessert. The only solution we've found is to discard the dessert at that point, which doesn't really make anyone happy (but stops the tantrum). Reminding him about the toy doesn't seem to make a difference; he regrets his choice at that point.

What good solutions are there to helping him cope with his choice? Is this even a good idea at this age (34 months)? Are there better ways to teach meaningful choices that are more effective at learning? Or is this just one of the many difficult things you have to do as good parents?

  • What's the question? There's a wall of text and not a single question mark in the whole... question. You should get a blog.
    – Dariusz
    Jun 4, 2014 at 16:21
  • @Dariusz Good point; wrote that too early in the morning to control my stress responses :) Edited to a hopefully better question with actual question marks.
    – Joe
    Jun 4, 2014 at 17:21
  • 3
    Three years old is very young for a child to be able to grasp the idea of actions and consequences in the future (especially the more distant rather than immediate future). Often, children don't start really grasping these concepts until ~5+ years old (and even then, it'll take longer for them to get a strong grasp).
    – Doc
    Jun 4, 2014 at 20:09

1 Answer 1


I believe this to simply be a part of childhood development, which, frankly, they aren't likely to master until their twenties.

I have a two year old and a five year old. We've done the same sort of thing, "Here's a choice, you may pick one or the other, but not both." And often times we end up having trouble because then the five year old later wants the other thing.

If you're not familiar with it, check out the Standford Marshmallow Experiment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment

  • I am aware of the Marshmallow experiment, and the general concept behind that (learning self control) is part of why we believe in teaching meaningful choices. Thanks for reminding me of the experiment's details, though; it used ages 3.5 to 5.5, and found older kids had an easier time with it, perhaps suggesting we're starting a bit early.
    – Joe
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:23

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