“I would have liked the other one better!” How Too Much Choice Affects Our Kids

Kids and choices: sometimes LESS is MORE. | SimpleKids.netThe 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.

Why sometimes limiting our kids' choices can be a POSITIVE thing | SimpleKids.net

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?

About Kara

Kara Fleck is the editor of Simple Kids. She is a small town mama, writer, knitter, bookworm, and hooligan. Kara lives in Indiana with her husband Christopher and their four children Jillian, Max, Lucy, and Amelia. You can find more of her writing at KElizabethFleck.com.

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  1. Great post…we’ve done the toy catalog thing too and seen the exact same results!

    Love this line: “When we have numerous options we are less satisfied with the end result, even if it’s perfectly fine.”
    Mandi @ Life Your Way´s latest post: Dear Readers… + Desktop Calendar {May 2012}

  2. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given my kids a choice about something (which book to buy? which movie to see? which language to study?) and then regretted it.

    I found The Paradox of Choice very helpful and affirming, because I definitely get overwhelmed by too many choices! I’m trying to be careful about not overwhelming my kids with decisions (especially if I already know what I want them to choose), and yet still giving them room to decide things.

    Thanks for the practical tips, and reminder.
    Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy´s latest post: What Do the Royal Wedding and the Bluegrass State Have in Common?

  3. Thanks for this post; you’ve got me wanting to read the book. My daughter is only two so we keep her choices pretty limited right now but I struggle with this even as adult. Our society seems to put a lot of pressure on making the “perfect” choice as if it’s possible to know ahead of time exactly where and in what that perfection lies. Like your dad points out, what we make of our choices often determines our happiness much more than the actual choices we make.
    Steph´s latest post: Looking out for the interest of others in our marriages

    • I agree. I get caught up in this too.

      The messages around us tell us to look outside ourselves, add more options to the mix, and strive toward this vague idea of perfection.

      But if we do a 180 and switch directions, we can look inward, decide what works best for us, and then adjust our attitude by being grateful for the choices we have. It seems to me this path takes us where we want to be.
      Suzita @ playfightrepeat.com´s latest post: The Power of the Written Word: New Info from Neuroscience

  4. We have struggled with this with our oldest son since he was tiny (he’s now 16.) Even with a menu at a restaurant, he has a terrible time deciding. He wants to make the “exotic” choice and still have something to fall back on if he doesn’t like what he’s chosen. I know how he feels. We try to encourage him to take moderate risks, and set a time limit on decision making. Then, we work hard to show him the great parts about his choices so he can minimize the down-side, because very few choices in life can permanently damage your happiness if you work hard to be optimistic!
    Jen@anothergranolamom´s latest post: Fall in Love with the World Challenge — Day 5

  5. My kids are quite small, almost 4 and 21 months, but I can already see how too many choices stress them out. When I say “go pick out a book for us to read” they lose interest really quickly, but if I pick two books and tell them to choose, they typically will be ready to go. The same thing with foods. We have already limited the toys in our house quite a bit, and see what a change that has made in their play time. They are more creative, and go back to the same few toys time after time, instead of taking everything out and then asking to watch a movie 🙂
    Heather´s latest post: thinking ahead to the harvest

  6. I’ve been limiting choices since birth, having read Montessori Philosophy when I was still pregantn. It makes sense to me that we offer a few age appropriate, simple but exciting choices, and then give (even young babies) the choice. but I find my five year old still can’t chose between 2 choices. She also doesn’t like when I chose for her. She’s so worried she’ll make the wrong choice- she wants both, can she have that one tomorrow. So much worrying! I’m still trying to figure out what to do, why it upsets her so much to leave an option behind. Then my three year old, if I give her 2 choices, she always wants a third choice she comes up with in her head. No matter how many times I tell her it’s not an option, she still wants it. It’s very frustrating!

    • Your comment made me smile because I so remember those days with young kids! Hang in there! Making choices is a skill, and as with other skills children will improve over time.

      But don’t forget to notice the few times when either child makes a choice well. When this happens, heap on the praise. Be impressed, and ask them how they made their decision so quickly and smoothly. This discussion may highlight things that help them make a satisfying decision.
      Suzita @ playfightrepeat.com´s latest post: The Power of the Written Word: New Info from Neuroscience

  7. My mom said something similar to me when I was overwhelmed with college choice: “Your education is what you make of it.” During my time in school, the recession hit and budget cuts dramatically weakened my program. I still got a great education by looking for opportunities outside the classroom. Mom was totally right (as usual…)
    Sarah G @ JoyontheJourney´s latest post: Caleb: 22 Months

  8. Rebecca says:

    Wow. As an adult, this is ME!! I really struggle with wide-open choice. I wonder what that says about my childhood? 😉

  9. I LOVE this article!

    It’s so true. Although my daughters are just three and one, I have worked out the benefits of limiting their choices. I rotate their toys, and we only have 1/3 out at a time. Instead of pulling everything off the shelves, now they play in depth with one toy until they have finished, then move onto another. My playroom floor and my sanity love it 😉
    The Accidental Housewife´s latest post: Co-sleeping. Experiences may vary.

    • I’m so impressed that you rotate your kids’ toys. When my kids were young, this was something I knew to be a good idea, always planned to do, expected I’d find the extra energy for at some point…and yet never did.

      You must have strong organization skills! And in the end, you’ll likely spend less money on toys because you can simply rotate another set of toys in when your kids get tired of the current set. Keep up the good work!
      Suzita @ playfightrepeat.com´s latest post: The Power of the Written Word: New Info from Neuroscience

  10. Such a valuable post! Giving children choices and teaching them decision-making is important, but sometimes we let it go too far. What a great example of how to offer choices within appropriate boundaries.
    Amanda Morgan´s latest post: First Friday QandA: “Using Your Words” vs “Fighting with Words”

  11. I love this! I’m a big fan of the book The Paradox of Choice and finally realized why those endless menus you find at diners end up being more irritating than freeing.

    We offer our toddler choices between two things. Anything more than that and he really doesn’t understand what we’re offering him. And we definitely don’t say, “What do you want to do today?” unless it’s followed up with those two options I mentioned.
    Sleeping Mom´s latest post: Flashback Friday: 8 tips to stay motivated with breastfeeding

  12. Stacie@HobbitDoor says:

    Great post! I find I prefer my choices to be limited too. I get overwhelmed by too many. I definitely see that in my 3 and 1 year old. I will have to read that book!
    Stacie@HobbitDoor´s latest post: Two Weeks Old

  13. I couldn’t agree more! Very well said.
    Jaimie´s latest post: Corn Syrup Paint

  14. bethany says:

    Completely agree! Great article!! I find myself doing the same thing when I enter a parking lot with only one or two spaces open versus an empty lot. Craziness. Never more than two open options. As to the catalog thing, we do give our kids the catalogs but set up the expectation beforehand that they will most likely NOT be receiving any of those items… only picking things to give us an *idea* of what they want. Because this mama shops at second-hand stores, garage sales, and craigslist. And, we\’ve instituted a \”you get what you get and you don\’t throw a fit\” rule since ours are still so young and things are mostly still black & white. Every so often one child will bring up an item they had longed for and we discuss the condition of their heart, and encourage them to save their own chore $ if they find they still really want it. They love things so much more when they pay for them.

  15. I agree so much with this. Sometimes, my son will even say ‘Mommy, you choose.” Because he is just too overwhelmed. If it is something I truly want him to be able to choose, I narrow it down like you said.

    I have not read Paradox of Choice, but a commenter on my blog recently recommended it as well so it is on my list.

    I am currently reading Simplicity Parenting which is very good on simplifying our kids life so they are free to live.
    Johanna´s latest post: Watching out for your kids needs

  16. Totally agree! Whenever we start to see our kids having meltdowns and talking back more, we can ALWAYS trace it back to our giving them too many choices in their days. They slowly become the boss of their world and therefore don’t consider it that important to obey us right away, all the way, and with a joyful heart when we give them a command. I’m gonna need to check out that book too!
    Carrie Hudson´s latest post: Homemade Powdered Sugar

  17. Your dad’s comment about choosing a college reminded me of something a college counselor told me as I was preparing to graduate and trying to decide between two missions trip opportunities. He said it didn’t really matter which decision I made and that God would use either one. That was hard for me to swallow at the time (and still is to some degree), but 10 years later, I’m happy with the choice I made.

  18. Thanks for the re-enforcement! We started cycling our children’s toys for just this reason. There was so much that they weren’t really playing with any of it. Not a good scenario.
    Margot´s latest post: I am Mom Enough

  19. I struggled with this concept for a long time with my kids. As a parent you always want them to have more than you did as a child. In the end I found out less is more. It gives them confidence to feel they are making the choice but if you give them to many choices it sets them and yourself up for frustration. Great post.


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