The following post was written by Suzita Cochran. There are affiliate links in this post.
When my kids were preschoolers, I’d give them the latest toy catalog before birthdays and holidays and have them circle things they wanted. This seemed like what we parents were supposed to do. And I’ll admit, watching their chubby faces light up when they came across something they desired was pretty satisfying.
My husband and I would sort through the circled toys and choose a few to give them. It all went smoothly until the big day arrived. Their small, awkward fingers excitedly tore open the presents and initially big smiles appeared.
But after briefly playing with the new toys, they launched into a round of pointed questions. “Where’s the jumping stick thing I circled? Why didn’t I get that?” “I like these trucks but I would have also liked that big bear.” Or from our daughter who’d already received one princess gown, “Why didn’t you get me that yellow princess dress too?”
The first few times we ignored these annoying questions as best we could. But this predicament had surprising staying power. It seems that my young children, the same ones who couldn’t remember how to make the letter K or what their phone number was, could generate from memory a complete list of the toys they hadn’t received, even a month later!
What was going on?
In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz confirms what our family experienced: As our choices increase, our expectations do too. When we have numerous options we are less satisfied with the end result, even if it’s perfectly fine. Like my young children, we hold the memory of a “toy” we didn’t receive and always wonder, What if I’d gotten that one instead?
The United States, where we live, was built on a foundation of freedom of choice. But we’ve taken this idea to extremes when the average grocery store now sells over 50 types of salad dressing. We assume that if some choice is good, more choice will be better. But Schwartz finds that more choice is actually worse than some choice.
No matter what our age, too much choice can paralyze our decision making, and lead to putting off a decision rather than making a less than perfect one.
Five ways to limit choice in our kids’ lives:
1. Don’t hand over the complete catalog of toys, summer camps, colleges, etc. to your child. First have a conversation with him about his priorities related to the choice at hand. For instance, if he has a hobby or spends lots of time playing a sport, gifts might include items to support these activities.
2. Don’t leave the full choice to your child. Help her by culling the choices down ahead of time. Perhaps offer 3 summer camps you know your child would enjoy and have her pick 1 or 2 of these. Then she won’t have numerous unchosen options to wonder about later.
3. Be careful with the language you use with your kids. Beware of phrases such as:
- It’s completely up to you.
- You can do anything you want.
- It’s a blank slate.
- Your options are wide open.
While these phrases may be appropriate at certain times, they can also convey inaccuracies to your child. Honestly, do we ever have a completely blank slate to work with in life? Instead use language which supports satisfaction with the final choice.
When I was in the bewildering process of applying to college, I remember my Dad saying, “Where ever you go in the end will be your #1 college.” I don’t know where he got this, but it is one of the most helpful things he’s ever said to me.
4. When children are young, offer them “Would you like to wear the red socks or the blue ones?” We all enjoy having options in our lives, but as Schwartz emphasizes, just not too many.
5. Declutter children’s rooms regularly. A room overflowing with toys and clothes symbolizes too much choice for a child. Teach your child how to prioritize her favorite and most-used items by regularly sorting through her things with her. If kids are too young to help with decluttering, it will still lower their stress levels if you keep their spaces free of too much stuff.
Too much choice means reduced creativity
Author and psychologist, Wendy Mogel, notes that parents and teachers often give children too many options. A teacher might assign a research paper on any subject whatsoever. A parent may ask his kids what they want to do this summer reminding them, “The world is your oyster!”
But when we do this, kids often spend most of their energy simply narrowing down to their final choice, and can run out of steam before reaching the actual project.
Mogel writes, “Creativity blossoms when it faces limits. A sonnet is fourteen lines, a haiku just three. When water is allowed to sprinkle it loses pressure, but when it is channeled through a hose the flow is more powerful.”
Next time you’re feeling bad about limiting your child in some way, remember that you may actually be enhancing her ingenuity, creativity, and satisfaction with her eventual choice.
Suzita Cochran is a child and family psychologist and mom of two boys and a girl, ages 13, 11, and 8, who lives in Boulder, Colorado. She writes at Play. Fight. Repeat. on topics such as helping kids “stop at enough” in today’s overflowing-with-options-and-items world.
How do you limit choice but encourage creativity in your child’s life?