Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Making Decisions Is Stressful


The boy stood outside the door. I smiled at him from the inside as his mother tried to coax him forward. He smiled back at me, but didn't move.

His mother asked him, "Don't you want to go to school?"

He nodded that he did, still smiling. Indeed, he appeared relaxed, almost like he was just taking his time, breathing, pausing before launching into his morning.

"Then let's go," his mother urged, taking a step toward the door, but he still didn't move. She gave me an apologetic look, then turned back to her son, "Are you coming?"

He nodded that he was coming, still smiling, and still not moving toward the door.

"Well, I'm going inside," she said, "It's cold out here. You can come in when your ready." She shrugged at me as she descended the stairs. The boy looked after her until she was out of his line of sight, then he began scanning the face of the building, taking it in as if he had never noticed its brick face before. He looked straight up at the sky. 

There was no reason to rush. In fact, they were early, among the first to arrive. His mother lowered her voice, "I don't know what it is. He loves coming to school. It's all he talks about."

I answered, "It looks to me like maybe he's savoring the moment."

"Maybe that's it," she replied, "but if it is, he's the master of savoring moments. He does this all the time. He did the same thing at the grocery store yesterday. When I ask him what he's waiting for, he tells me he's waiting to know what to do."

I asked her, "Is he waiting for you to tell him what to do or something?"

"Obviously not," she laughed, "You heard me. It's like he's waiting for an inner voice."

By now others were arriving, stepping around him to get through the door. Still he stood, smiling, breathing, waiting for his inner voice.

After several minutes, his mother did what some parenting books suggest: she gave him a choice. "You can walk in by yourself or I can carry you."

In a flash, his sanguineness left him. His body visibly stiffened, his eyes rounded. Then he burst into tears.

Perhaps he had, all along, been submerging his real feelings behind smiling and stillness, but two-year-olds typically don't try to hide their feelings. More likely, it had been his mother's gentle insistence that he make a decision that had suddenly stressed him out.

I think, as adults, with all of our practice making decisions, we tend to forget how very stressful it can be to make decisions, even seemingly small ones. After all, only a few months ago he was a baby. We don't expect babies to make decisions. It's something we must learn how to do. And without practice it can be hard.

Indeed, among the living things, it seems that humans are unique in terms of decision-making. A flower becomes aware of the sun and turns toward it. My dog barks at sudden noises. The rabbits that live in my neighborhood react to the same noises by hiding in the shrubbery. Flowers, dogs, rabbits, they don't make decisions, they react to their "inner voice." And while we humans certainly remain at one level instinctive animals, we are the only living creature, as far as we know, that can override our instincts, and actually make a decision about how to behave in any given circumstance.

And making decisions is stressful. The onus to choose among one or more courses of action is something we must practice. We talk about the impulsivity of young children. If we ask them why they did this or that, they usually can't tell us because there was no point at which they made a decision -- they just reacted according to instinct in the same way they instinctively react to a breast by suckling. But the uniqueness of humanity is that we have developed a kind of consciousness that is capable of ignoring our inner voice and choosing how to behave.

It must be incredibly confusing to be a very young child, stuck between the natural imperative of instincts and the learned social imperative to make decisions. 

In many ways, decision-making can be considered the essence of our lives. 

Of course, we all know the stress of making big decisions, like choosing a university, buying a home, or getting married. Making these decisions are often so stressful that it impacts our eating and sleeping.

On the other hand, most of us believe have figured out how to reduce the stress of day-to-day decision-making. One strategy we all use is to make a decision once, then stick to it as a way to avoid the stress of on-the-spot decision-making. We call these habits. It is stressful, however, when something happens to thwart us. We choose a brand at the supermarket and stick to it, but are thrown for a small loop when our favorite is out of stock. We make schedules, then get stressed out when something comes up. We're suddenly made anxious when our normal route to work is blocked by construction. Even our little decisions, and the gyrations we go through around them, shape our lives, often profoundly.

Young children have not learned the trick of habits and so are forever faced with decisions that we consider inconsequential. No wonder they cry.

There is only one way to learn to make decisions and that is through practice. This is why play is so important for young children. It is the mechanism by which children can grapple with the dilemma of decision-making. Through play, we learn, in a relatively safe way, about the consequences of our decisions, we learn how to consider others in our decision-making, we figure out those habits that make our lives less stressful, and also what to do when our expectations are thwarted. 

There is pain, fear, and loss: these are the stressors we share with all living things. But the stress of decision-making is ours alone. And it is our blessing and our curse.

******

Play is how we begin to learn what it means to be human, including how to make decisions. Whether you are just starting out as a play-based educator, are a veteran of play, or are a parent/caregiver interested in providing children a playful childhood, please consider joining the very first cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based LearningThis is my brand new 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based pedagogy, designed to make you think deeply about the role you play in the lives of children, and give you the inspiration, insight and tools needed to create an environment of genuine play for the children in your life. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

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