When Sally wants something that is not an option at the moment—say, going out for ice cream—the first thing I do is explain why it’s not an option. I explain that we had already made other plans, or that we don’t have money in the budget to go for ice cream every day, or that we need to make sure we’re eating a healthy diet and ice cream should be a special treat not something we eat constantly, etc.
Sometimes, however, that’s not enough. Sally doesn’t always understand the concept of staying on a budget (“But mommy, you can just go to the bank and get more money!”—is it just me or does every kid her age come up with this?), and her priorities are different (she may not care that her baby brother needs to sleep, or that I have an assignment to finish). In these cases, I have to put my foot down and say “no” even though Sally may not understand.
When this happens, I try to make sure to give Sally options. If she wants to go for ice cream but that’s not an option, I give her other options: She can have a popsicle or a slice of watermelon. If she wants the children’s museum but that’s not an option I give her other options: we can go to the library or the park. Sometimes this works beautifully, and sometimes Sally responds with “but I don’t want a popsicle or watermelon, I want ice cream!”
This isn’t something I only do when I have already told her her first choice is not available—I give Sally options and ask for her input constantly. I give her options for breakfast, let her choose which park we go to, give her a choice of outfits, and involve her in making a weekend or evening plan as a family. Regardless of the context, I like to think that giving Sally voices shows her I value her, gives her some sense of control over her life, and introduces her to the world of decision-making.
I suppose I like to emphasize options as a recourse when I have to tell her “no” because I don’t want her to feel that she has no control over her life, no option but to do whatever I say. But the other morning Sally turned this around on me in a way that made me think. Her two favorite outfits—the blue one and the green one—were both dirty, and I told her she couldn’t wear them. I gave her other options—a full closet of clean options—but it didn’t work. She was upset. She insisted that she didn’t want to wear anything else. Finally, she took a deep breath and turned to me intently.
“Mommy, you have two options. I will wear the blue one, or I will wear the green one. Now choose! Those are your options! What do you pick?”
I had to turn away from her so she wouldn’t think I was laughing at her.
The thing is, what she was offering me was a false choice. She was giving me two options that I’d already said I didn’t want, and not giving me the one option I did want—for her to choose clean clothes. Needless to say, I didn’t take her up on her offer, and a promise to do laundry that day so that she could wear either one the next day resolved the situation. But Sally’s offer—and how it felt to be on the receiving end of this options thing—did give me something to think about.
It’s not like I can change the reality that Sally can’t always have her own way—and it’s not like I would if I could. There are times when, for any of a variety of reasons, I simply have to tell her “no”—and if there were never such times, she might not adjust well to someday finding herself in an adult world where she can’t simply have or do anything she likes (yes, she’ll have a lot more freedom, but there are still limits to that freedom). I try to give her options to give her something she can control, and also to make it clear that I’m taking her needs and wants into consideration too.
But now I have to wonder—how often do the “options” I offer after saying “no” to what she actually wanted feel just as false as choice she presented me? Sometimes it works out great, and Sally gets excited about going to, say, the library instead of the children’s museum. Other times it doesn’t work out so well, and she refuses, say, both the popsicle and the slice of watermelon and goes on demanding ice cream. I definitely plan to go on giving Sally options after saying “no” to something in the future, and I don’t really see an alternative to the reality that these options will sometimes feel like a false choice. I do know, however, that I’ll have a greater level of sympathy for her frustration the next time she balks at the options I offer her.
How about you? How have you dealt with the offering of options and the existence of false choices, either on the receiving end as a child or on the meting out end as a parent or caregiver?