Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Too Many Choices

Back in the 90's my wife and I moved to Germany. On my first trip to the supermarket, I was struck by the fact that while the footprint of the store itself was significantly smaller than the ones I was used to in the States, it contained pretty much everything for which I was looking. It was the snack foods aisle that unlocked the secret of how this could happen. Whereas back home, a typical grocer might offer several dozen brands of potato chips, here I found the selection reduced to two brands. That was it. They offered all the things a modern shopper might need, just with fewer options.

I experienced this discovery with a sense of relief. Everything about moving to a foreign country had been stressful, but standing there in front of this limited offering was like an island of peace. In Germany, I had fewer choices when it came to most consumer products. Indeed, there was even a law that forbad one retailer from undercutting another on price. This meant that the daily chore of shopping was less fraught with decisions: you just went to the nearest store where most of the choices were already made for you.

I understand that things have changed in Germany and I also understand that many American readers are not necessarily going to see the beauty of being denied their favorite brand of specialty snack foods, but it was the first time that I had recognized that part of the stress of the world comes from having too many decisions to make.

Stress is inevitable and necessary, of course, but I don't need to tell anyone that it can also be toxic, especially these days. There is nothing we can do about some sources of stress. For instance, the stress that comes with sadness, which is typically triggered by a loss of some kind. Loss is built into existence, we can do nothing to avoid it and little to equip ourselves for it. All we can really do is experience it, to grieve, fully and completely, hopefully with the support of loved ones.

The stress that results from fear is more problematic. Our ability to experience fear is a key part of how our species has survived. Without it, we would tend to be fool hardy, to not take adequate precautions, to not protect ourselves from obvious dangers, yet too much of it and we can become crippled by anxieties. Each of us, in our way, seeks to manage our fears with varying degrees of success. And again, one of the keys to that is the support of loved ones.

But what I'm thinking about this morning is the stress that comes from decision-making. That's the real price we humans pay for having choices. The more choices we have, the more decisions we have to make, and decision-making can be stressful.

As adults, we've learned ways to pre-make many of our daily decisions. For example, we tend to stick with brands of products that we've already determined to be our favorites. We put items like keys, glasses, and wallets in the same place every time. We turn much of our decision-making over to schedules or bosses or moral codes. Having recently moved, I've even been aware of the extra low-level stress I've been experiencing as I've figured out the new routines and habits that I will come to replace day-to-day decision-making around the house. 

Young children, however, have not yet learned these strategies and too many choices, too many decisions, can overwhelm them. Too many toys, for instance, can cause a child to not play with any of them at all. Some children will freeze up when confronted with decisions, refusing to make even the simplest ones like whether they want their juice in a red or blue cup. Others melt down over decisions, while others throw tantrums rather than decide. A parent once told me that her son had been refusing to brush his teeth because, he insisted, his toothbrush was red, so she bought a blue one to give him another choice. When he began to refuse that, she purchased a yellow, then a green, then a sparkly one. By the time she spoke with me, their toothbrushing routine had devolved into a half hour of emotional decision-making. 

As we make dozens of decisions a day, it's easy for us to forget young children have not had our years of experience with decision-making. It frustrates us as they twist themselves into knots trying to decide what pair of socks to wear, but for many children, even simple day-to-day decisions can ignite the kind of stress we might experience over purchasing a home, considering a new job, or contemplating a divorce. Just as we cannot avoid the stress that comes from sadness or fear, we cannot avoid the stress of decision-making. Our young children are just emerging from infancy during which decisions were made for them. This is new and fraught terrain for them. 

Experts will often tell us that a child's refusal to make decisions is about wanting to feel in control, and sometimes it is, but just as often, I think, it's about the stress of decision-making. Our instinct, like with the mother buying more toothbrushes, might be to offer them more choices when fewer is really what they are asking for. Sometimes the best thing we can do is pack 90 percent of their toys into boxes. And often, we need to simply be there with them as we do when they are sad and afraid, to hold them and listen to them as they process the stress they are feeling.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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