The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less is a book that argues convincingly that our society’s “overwhelming abundance of choice” in every arena – from clothes to foods to career to 401Ks – is less helpful than we’d imagine. “Beware of choice overload,” the back cover summary reads, “ (as) too much of a good thing has proven detrimental to our emotional and pyschological well-being.” Provocative read; I recommend it.
As I’ve been reflecting on it, I think the same basic concept may well apply with our toddlers and preschoolers.
When my husband and I first confronted the fact that we needed to make some changes in parenting our son, then 2 3/4 years old, we realized that we offered him numerous choices throughout the day. From beverage options to shoe selection to activity-related decisions, he was allowed to pick (usually) one of two offered choices. This in part seemed logical as his verbal skills improved and in part was absorbed by the parenting norms we saw around us. It’s virtually a foregone conclusion in child-rearing today that offering kids choices is a good idea, helps them learn to make decisions, and lets them feel in control of their worlds. Offering limited choices is often recommended, enabling parents to ultimately direct them to something that needs to occur. (“Do you want to put your pj’s on before or after you brush your teeth?” Either way the kid is brushing teeth and putting on PJ’s).
But in our case, we found that our son had grown accustomed to weighing in on choices throughout the day and had begun to assume that decision-making was basically his perrogative. He whined, tantrumed, and protested frequently, and part of the problem was that he felt he should be in control and therefore wasn’t willing to take input from us. We had ourselves fostered this sense in him, and we needed to change course.
Our culture values autonomy and individuality a great deal, and values respect for authority and obedience very little. So, as I’ve discussed before, it’s not surprising to see parenting modes reflecting this. But the biblical call for us Christian parents to foster obedience and respect in our children is clear and prevalent. Does this mean that children should never be offered choices? Of course not. But it does mean that teaching our children to obey and accept our (God-given, benelovent) authority over them should be primary.
Something interesting happened with our son when we began to limiting the choices we offered him and requiring him to obey us when he directed him. He became happier. Not just more compliant, but noticeably, visibly more cheerful – even relaxed. It was as if there were a pressure on him from making decisions all day – decisions that he really wasn’t mature enough to make in many cases – and it was a relief to be told, and then expected, to follow the lead of someone in charge. He simply didn’t have the maturity to handle all the freedoms we’d been giving him. It reinforced for my husband and me the sense of security that a child feels when his parents provide clear direction as established leaders.
We won’t do our children any favors in the long run if we build autonomy and independence into them at the expense of their learning how to accept appropriate, respectful authority. [After all, God asks all of us to submit to His authority, and part of our job as parents is to train our children toward this end.] Ted Tripp observes that today, the majority of parents “give away their authority, piece by piece, by the time their children are school age.” How? Through a thousand small transactions like choosing meals, utensils, cups, clothes at every turn – leading the child to reasonably conclude that he’s running his own life.
So perhaps offering young children choices should happen on a much more limited scale than many parents today employ. Our current practice with our son, now three and a half, is to offer him choices on select things throughout the day – held out in the context of authority clearly conveying that Mom and Dad are still in charge. If one of the two choices isn’t accepted, then we select and enforce one ourselves. If and when we see whining and protestation increase, we scale back the offering of the choice in that arena until our son once again demonstrates his capability to cheerful accept our authority. The expansion of choices grows on that basis.
A wise friend of mine, mother to four kids six and under, summarized this for me well:
“A toddler or preschooler should not have choices for every little thing, but a few well-chosen ones throughout the day work well. Having too many choices not only overwhelms and stresses a small child, but also slows things down too much, opens up room for arguments and tantrums, and doesn’t ensure that he can and will respect and submit to you simply for being the parents and the authorities (under God’s authority).”