Choices. It’s the American Way, isn’t it? Having an abundance of choices is considered a metaphor for the free world, of progress, innovation and often, status. Having just survived the holidays, we all know it can be dizzying taking in the amount of choices we have as consumers.
When it comes to offering choices to our children, there are some things to consider. I am going to offer some seemingly normal decision-making scenarios below and explain why they are challenging for children.
A well-intentioned dad reported to me that his 12-year-old son “can’t make a decision.” This dad, intending to be fun and supportive, was providing his son the opportunity to pick the restaurant they would eat at and even to decide what the family would do for the weekend.
I asked this dad, “What choices did you offer him to decide from?”
The dad looked at me incredulously, as if I did not know what a choice was, and responded, “I give him all the choices, whatever he wants!” I happened to know that in prior years, when this child was younger, his mom made ALL of his decisions. How was he supposed to go from not being permitted to make a decision to suddenly having a world of choices at his fingertips?
A very sweet and conscientious mom would send her 3-year-old to school with an ample lunch containing more than 10 items stuffed into her lunch box. When we sat down to eat, I observed her daughter just sitting and looking at all of the food, not knowing which item to eat. I would take out two to three items to help narrow the choices.
I once worked at an elementary school where, in the mornings, the children were able to make their own decisions about how to spend their time. They could choose from an elaborate array of materials lined up all around the classroom: art supplies, games, books, bins and boxes of yarn, tissue paper, glitter, pipe cleaners, etc. There must have been 30 to 40 bins of art supplies alone stacked against one wall. At the time, I was envious that the children were able to have this generous amount of materials to choose from.
But, what to pick? What to make? A good number of the children, ages 5 to 8, wandered aimlessly, frozen in a sensory overload, some almost in tears, frustrated with their inability to choose from so many items. Unless they experienced it at home, a lot of these children were missing crucial steps on how to make a decision.
When less is more
This dilemma — too many choices — was the subject of a Ted Talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz called “The Paradox of Choice.” Schwartz used an example of adults shopping for specific investments for retirement, utilizing the infinity of choices available on the Internet. Daunted by so many choices and fearful of making a bad choice without thoroughly researching what was offered, many people never get the choice made. “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all,” said Schwartz. This phenomenon has even been given a buzz phrase: decision fatigue!
Certainly for the children in the examples I gave, the abundance of choices, while seemingly generous, disabled their decisionmaking. Those children had not had enough experience making decisions. Children need practice making simple decisions over time that gradually evolve into more complex types of decisions as they grow, enabling their brains to begin handling these more executive functions.
Beginning in preschool, or when your child is around two, it is helpful to start by offering choices in pairs: Would you like cereal or waffles for breakfast? Would you like to wear the red or blue pants today? In my preschool classroom of 2.5- to 5-year-olds, the classroom is sparsely set up at the beginning of the year to help the children adjust to deciding what they want to do. As they learn and become adept at making their own choices, I add more materials and the shelves eventually fill up. Through this progressive exercise, the children learn not only how to begin to make decisions at school, but they also begin to learn what they like and what they are good at. They learn to take the risks of decisionmaking in a facilitated, supportive environment.
Indeed, it takes practice. As I attempted to counsel my friend whose 12-year-old couldn’t pick a restaurant or decide what he wanted to do on the weekend, I suggested going back a bit and helping to create the foundation for decisionmaking by starting slow. As your children go to school, they will need to make decisions about who to play with, what to write that report about, where to sit at lunch and then, someday, who to date or whether to go to that party where they are serving alcohol. The more opportunities we give them to practice making decisions in supportive, comfortable situations, the more knowledge and experience they will have when they have to tackle the harder ones!
Jill Carstens is a proud Denver native, a passionate mom and a teacher her entire adult life! She picked North Denver as her home base in 1997, and has run Milestones Preschool here since 2011.