My wife works with families with children with disabilities and one of the things I learned from her is how to ask children to do something. When speaking with an adult, we often use softeners when requesting that the other person do something, but this doesn’t work with children. So while we may say to a colleague, a spouse, or a friend, “can you please XYZ,” or “lets call it a night of bowling after this frame, OK?” these sentences don’t work with children. A child won’t quite grasp the way a softener like “OK” is used and they won’t understand that while you have framed an instruction or request as a question you are not actually asking a question or trying to give someone a choice. If you frame an instruction as a choice the child can reply with “no” and then you as a parent are stuck fighting them.
What happens in this situation is that children reject the frame bounding that parents present them with. To get around it, parents need to be either more direct or more creative with how they tell their children to do things. You can create a new frame for your child that they can’t escape by saying, “It is time to get ready for dinner, you can either put away your toys, or you can go set the table.” You frame a choice for the child, and they get to chose which action they are going to take, but in reality both are things you want them to do (my wife says this also works with husbands but I think the evidence is mixed).
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound.”
The examples I gave with talking to children versus talking to adults helps demonstrate how we passively accept the framing for our decisions. We don’t often pause to reconsider whether we should really purchase an item on sale. The discount that we are saving outweighs the fact that we still face a cost when purchasing the item. Our thinking works this way in office settings, in politics, and on the weekends when we can’t decide if we are going to roll out of bed or not. The frame that is applied to our decisions becomes our reality, even if there are more possibilities out there than what we realize.
A child rejecting the framing that a parent provides, or conversely a parent creating new frames to shape a child’s decisions and behaviors demonstrates how easily we can fall into frame-bound thinking and how jarring it can be when reality intrudes on the frames we try to live within. Most of the times we accept the frames presented for us, but there can be huge costs if we just go along with the frames that advertisers, politicians, and other people want us to adopt.