Bernard Woolley: What if [the prime minister] demands options?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, it's obvious, Bernard. The Foreign Office will happily
present him with three options, two of which are, on close
inspection, exactly the same.
Sir Richard Wharton: Plus a third which is totally unacceptable.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
Yes, Prime Minister, “A Victory for democracy”
Your child is in command, captain of the ship, in charge of their own life. At least, try to make it appear that way, while in fact, your hand is on the rudder.
Just like Sir Humphrey handling his prime minister, James Hacker, in the classic BBC comedy Yes, Prime Minister. Hacker, as the elected representative, is nominally in charge, but Sir Humphrey, as the career bureaucrat who has seen many politicians come and go, holds the power in reality. He has dozens of tricks and schemes to get his own way and the joy is seeing them in action.
I recommend you watch that show for the biting dialogue and political comment, but most of all for the way Sir Humphrey carefully Hacker wherever he wants, all the while maintaining the illusion that Hacker is in command. Try to be Sir Humphrey to your child’s Hacker, giving them the illusion of control, while in fact guiding their hand.
First among Sir Humphrey’s techniques is to control the options. While your child makes their choice and has the final word, make them choose between options that you have pre-selected, any of which would be acceptable. Done well, your child won’t even notice the alternatives they aren’t being presented with:
“Would you rather have peas, beans or broccoli tonight?”
“Shall we do maths or English as our first lesson of the day?”
“Do you want to play football or tag outside?”
In these cases, your children are going to eat some greens, have a useful first lesson and get some air outside, but they get to pick the exact form. Mix it up if you like by having a couple of possible options that you like, and one silly option that you don’t want them to choose, but that they hate even more: “Would you like peas, petit pois or stewed cabbage? Ah, peas it is then.”
Offering options also works between kids, if they can’t agree what to watch or what to play. One child chooses three options that they like, and the other picks one of them. It doesn’t always work; sometimes one child is dead set on what they want, but given a little flexibility on both sides, that can be a nice way to resolve contentious decisions.
As ever, the aim is to give your kids as much autonomy as possible, while still getting things done. Where real autonomy is difficult to manage, limited choices also work well.