How Much Choice Do Kids Need?

UnknownDr. Corinne Masur

Once upon a time (when I was growing up) children were told, “Tonight we are having chicken a la king for dinner.”  Now, you might have hated chicken a la king, or perhaps you had the same thing for lunch at school…but that was STILL what was for dinner.

At some point parenting changed, and the idea that choices were important for children’s development became popular.  “Child centered parenting” was on the cutting edge, and giving children choices in what to wear, what to eat, and what to do was part of that.

At the very same time, our society was becoming increasingly industrialized with more and more consumer products becoming available in stores.  In the 50’s, as the world was recovering from WWII, middle class people in Western nations might have a car– or they might not.  But they usually didn’t have two cars.  Adult women might have a few nice dresses and a few for everyday wear, but that was it.  No one had a walk in closet–they didn’t need one! Children had clothes for dressy occasions, school, and play, and these categories did not mix.

Now that we have prepared foods at grocery stores, take-out food, fast food, Amazon, Target, and Walmart (plus lots of things imported from other countries where labor is cheap), dinner is often whatever your child wants. Kids often have a great deal of choice in clothing, and their weekends are full of playdates and activities of their choosing.

Is this helpful for children?

Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, wrote a book called The Paradox of Choice (below, you will find a link to his Ted Talk which covers his basic premise).  His theory is that we THINK that more choice is great.  We THINK that more choice equals more freedom, and more freedom equals greater self expression. And we THINK that more freedom and more self expression will make us (and our children) happy.

But what Schwartz has found is that, in fact, more choice makes us less happy.

Why is this?

Schwartz says that too much choice can lead to paralysis.

How do we, let alone our kids, know how to choose when we have so many possibilities? He says that people suffer when they have too many choices: How to choose? What to choose? Which is the right choice?  It can be hard.  This is where the paralysis comes in.

Furthermore, Schwartz says, lots of choices lead to less satisfaction and more disappointment with the choice that’s ultimately made.  Maybe I chose the wrong thing?  What if I had chosen this other thing?

Schwartz also says that more choice leads to more self blame.  Before, when chicken a la king was for dinner, kids could be mad at Mom for making that.  Now if we choose Burger King and wish we had chosen Chik-Fil-A, we have only ourselves to blame. Children can feel overly responsible when things don’t meet their expectations because, after all, it was THEIR choice.

Many modern child developmentalists and child psychologists think that children of all ages need parents to make some of the choices.  Young children do NOT always need a choice in what they are going to eat, wear, or do on the weekends.  They feel safe when they know a grown up is in charge.  And while they might complain or cry that they don’t like what a parent chose, this doesn’t mean that the parent made a mistake and that negotiation should take place.  Sometimes it can mean this, but more often, the parent’s choice can be the final word.  It’s really okay for a young child to do something or wear something they don’t like, or to sit at a table where people are eating something that’s not their favorite. And for older kids, parents can hold a firm line on safety and what’s best for the child.  There don’t need to be choices about these things, and Mom or Dad can still decide what’s for dinner.  And parents will, I think, feel a sense of relief when they do.  One old standby in the freezer (mac and cheese?) can be pulled out in an emergency, but otherwise the whole family can eat the same meal!

So how do we as parents use this information?  What can we do differently to simplify our children’s lives and to help them have lower expectations?

Watch Barry Schwartz’s talk and think about how you can apply these ideas in your family:


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