The Illusion of Choice

by Helene Louise  

If you ask a child if they want to watch television, go to the park or have some chocolate, they’re very likely to express immediate enthusiasm. If you ask a child if they want to do their homework, they’ll generally be a lot less enthusiastic. And, if you ask a child who is facing any kind of physical rehabilitation to do a particular exercise, the response is not likely to be enthusiastic at all and it might even be a flat-out refusal. 

The exercises my daughter has had to do as part of her physical rehabilitation, for example, have been frustrating and tedious. Trying to stretch fingers that have never been extended, or use a hand that just “doesn’t want to listen” as my daughter used to say, is very difficult and often, even painful. Still, the only way for her to overcome the effects of the stroke she suffered is for her to work at it. As much as we want to give our children everything we can, the outcome of physical rehabilitation is not something we can give them directly, or do for them—it’s something we can only facilitate.

What I have found particularly helpful, is what I call the “illusion of choice”. For example, I might say to my daughter, “How about we do some exercises and then you can watch TV for a while?” to which she is likely to reply, “No, I just want to watch TV.” So then I might say, “No, but how about I’ll help you with your exercises while you’re watching TV so that we can get them done really fast,” to which she might answer, “OK, maybe...but only if I get to watch for an extra long time.” At that point, I’d say something like, “Hmmm, I don’t know...well...OK,” knowing that the longer she is distracted by the television, the longer I have to work in some exercises with her. And, because she feels like she has participated in the decision-making process, she is much more likely to be cooperative.

You can call it encouragement, being strategic, creative thinking or manipulation. I like to call it the “illusion of choice” and I’ve found it to be very effective in facilitating my daughter’s progress.

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