Brainy Parenting

Children are constantly making requests. Some requests are easily answered: “Of course you can go play outside!” Some requests can be immediately dismissed: “No, you absolutely can’t have an alligator for a pet!” But there are some requests that can be more tricky to answer; they require more thought because the outcomes are not readily apparent, or fulfilling the request might be inconvenient or be contingent on variables out of a parents control. And that’s when parents reach for the old standby: “maybe.” It’s one of the most commonly uttered words — and, it turns out, most damaging — in the parental toolbox.

Using “maybe” as a response often feels like the most reasonable way to answer a child. Can we go to the playground after you get home from work? Well, it depends on how the day went. It depends on what’s for dinner. It depends on the weather and if mom and dad even have enough energy to leave the house. It all adds up to a big amorphous “maybe.”

Many times, parents use “maybe” because they want to avoid the immediate consequences of saying no. After all, telling a kid that a trip to the park probably won’t happen after work could lead to disappointment and potential meltdowns. Other parents may simply want to delay feeling guilty about saying no to a reasonable request. Still others might genuinely be unsure about their answer and need time or information. In all of these circumstances, it’s perfectly rational to think that delaying the decision via a noncommittal response is the best tactical move.

Tactical, it may be, but it’s an emotional time bomb.

Kids who receive a “maybe” — or a “we’ll see” or “I’ll have to think about it” — are left with uncertainty. And until their question is answered, they fill that uncertainty with imagined outcomes, both good and bad depending on their experience and emotional predisposition. That might be fine for an optimistic kid, who can spend the day dreaming of playing in the park. But for an anxious kid, a “maybe” could lead to a day spent in agonizing anticipation of bad news. When a parent’s answer has always been no, both kids have been primed for an explosion of disappointment.

Poor reactions to uncertainty are not a character flaw. They are human. In a 2019 issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology , Tufts University researchers suggested that when presented with uncertain situations people build mental simulations anticipating the outcome. Most of the time, these imagined outcomes are biased towards negativity. And that negativity makes the uncertainty unpleasant. In fact, uncertainty seems to only be pleasurable in the context of games or entertainment, like mystery novels and sporting events.

But family life isn’t a detective story or a game. At least, not usually. And too many “maybes” that end in “no” can give a kid a string of unpleasant experiences that will eventually erode their trust in a parent.

The word “maybe” also gives children a permeable boundary. Uncertainty can prompt kids to make their own decisions. A kid that’s told maybe they can watch TV will likely default to “watch TV”. A kid that’s told maybe they can have a soda will likely just drink the soda. When the boundaries aren’t set, it’s a reasonable gamble to assume a maybe is a yes. There is a 50/50 shot that it’s the right choice. And when the consequences do come down? You’ve already enjoyed the soda or the TV, so what does it matter?

5 Responses Instead of Saying Maybe

  • Straight Negation: “No. Because …” Make sure to provide reasons that are consistent with family rules and values
  • Straight Affirmation: “Yes.” But make sure that whatever is being agreed to happens within a reasonable time. Right after the request is best, but if that doesn’t work offer a deadline.
  • Affirmation, With Strings: “Yes, but …”  Whether the contingency is completing or engaging in certain behavior make sure a kid has goals and a clear path to achieving them
  • The Delay Due to Outside Circumstances: “I will make a decision about this when … ”  Makes sure delayed decisions connected to needed information have a deadline and it’s clear what needs to be known.
  • The Delay Because You Need More Time: “I will answer after …” Be clear about when an answer can be expected. Make it sooner than later and stick with your timeline.

Does that mean parents need to be certain about all decisions the second a kid hits them with a question or a request? Nope. That’s an unreasonable expectation. And in fact, it’s important for children to understand that their parents sometimes don’t have an answer. But not having the answer and making the effort to find it, isn’t the same as being willfully uncertain. A “maybe” that isn’t followed up by a real effort to reach a yes or no decision just makes a parent look unsure and wishy-washy.

So, banishing maybe from the parental lexicon means replacing it with more decisive and proactive responses. In some cases, where a parent just wants to put off bad news, it’s better to just say no to a request and work through the reaction. Alternatively, if the guilt of saying no feels too heavy, it might be a good time to consider if no is the right answer. What happens if you say yes? In many cases, yes just leads to a good time. But if yes is the answer, parents need to be sure and follow through.

There are real circumstances where parents need more information before providing an answer. If that’s the case, then a kid will benefit from knowing what information needs to be collected. And if collecting that information will take time, then parents should give themselves a deadline and maybe even enlist the kid in information gathering. So “maybe” becomes, “I’ll make a decision about the park after we check the weather forecast at 2pm.”

In cases where a “yes” answer is dependent on contingencies that are in a child’s control — a chore completed or rules are followed — parents need to make sure that kids have a goal and a clear path to achieving it. Putting a kid in control of the answer makes soft boundaries a little harder. The answer is no, until conditions are met.

There are no real cases in daily life where “maybe” can’t be replaced with more certain responses, even if that response is, “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question until I’ve finished making dinner.” It’s just a matter of practicing clear and honest communication. And that kind of communication will only help kids grow into confident adults. No maybe about it.

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