In the U.S. and other privileged societies, even small decisions can be stressful. There are 108 brands of cold cereal for me to choose from at our supermarket (I counted them).
Video shops are worse. I am lured into them by the prospect of spending a peaceful evening relaxing in front of a film. Instead, I waste hours spinning from shelf to shelf in feverish indecision.
Such decisions literally make us sick. In his groundbreaking book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler demonstrates that many of our modern illnesses are related directly to what he calls ‘decisional overstimulation.’ People dealing with a high level of change- and all the decisions that go with it- simply break down. The more difficult their decisions, the more fragile they become.
Page 29 of Tim Bascom’s 1993 book The Comfort Trap: Spiritual Dangers of the Convenience Culture
Obviously, from the title, this book is about a much broader, and more important topic than simple decision making, but I want to talk about parenting, toddlers, and conventional wisdom, which is all kinds of conventional, but not so very wise.
When we lived overseas, we were still very much living a first world lifestyle. However, the base commissary did not carry a huge range of brands. You had may 3-4 choice of shampoo, for example. When we returned to the states for our first visit homeside, I was actually paralyzed in the toiletries aisle. I could not choose shampoo or conditioner. It was overwhelming. My feet felt like they were mired in thick, goopy clay, and my brain just shut down. My mother found me there, just staring at the hundreds of bottles I had to choose from. She asked what I was doing. I shook myself, asked her to choose shampoo and conditioner for me, and moved on.
And what I find interesting about all that, is that when a toddler has temper tantrums, one of the reasons conventional wisdom gives for those tantrums is that the toddler probably doesn’t have enough autonomy in his life, and the solution is to give the 2 year old more control via more choices.
I’m not saying you’re a bad parent if you let your 3 year old choose what to wear. I’d have to see what he chooses to know that. I don’t want to argue about the details of the supposed wisdom of letting a 2 year old treat you like a short order cook where he’s the customer and customer is always king or whether it’s the end of civilization as we once knew it if the toddler gets to decide a dozen things or more each day.
My point is just…. isn’t that funny? Don’t First World child psychologists, parenting experts, adn those of us who listen to them, have a very strange sort of tunnel vision? IT’s so very, very obviously a First World solution, yet we treat it like it’s a universal Toddler Trait to need autonomy in clothing, food, decorating, and entertainment choices. It doesn’t even occur to us that this cannot be quite the panacea we’ve been it is, since the majority of the world’s toddlers do not have the luxury of those choices. They have a single garment- or none. They will have rice for their single meal of the deal or they won’t eat- they won’t get to ‘choose’.
And maybe, just maybe, that toddler has tantrums because he has already been given too many choices, and are suffering the resulting stress from ‘decisional overstimulation.’
Charlotte Mason wrote about this in the late 19th and early 20th century:
Consider how laborious life would be were its wheels not greased by habits of cleanliness, neatness, order, courtesy; had we to make the effort of decision about every detail of dressing and eating, coming and going, life would not be worth living.
She suggests arming the children by teaching them excellent habits and fine principles (while working on their character) so they have fewer decisions to make because right thinking and right living come naturally to them- it would require more effort to decide NOT to do the right thing:
The great things of life, life itself, are not easy of definition. The Will, we are told, is ‘the sole practical faculty of man.’ But who is to define the Will? We are told again that ‘the Will is the man’; and yet most men go through life without a single definite act of willing. Habit, convention, the customs of the world have done so much for us that we get up, dress, breakfast, follow our morning’s occupations, our later relaxations, without an act of choice. For this much at any rate we know about the will. Its function is to choose, to decide, and there seems to be no doubt that the greater becomes the effort of decision the weaker grows the general will.
Unlike every other power in the kingdom of Mansoul, the will is able to do what it likes, is a free agent, and the one thing the will has to do is to prefer. “Choose ye this day,” is the command that comes to each of us in every affair and on every day of our lives, and the business of the will is to choose. But, choice, the effort of decision, is a heavy labour, whether it be between two lovers or two gowns. So, many people minimise this labour by following the fashion in their clothes, rooms, reading, amusements, the pictures they admire and the friends they select. We are zealous in choosing for others but shirk the responsibility of decisions for ourselves.
What is to be said about obedience, to the heads of the house first, to the State, to the Church, and always to the laws of God? Obedience is the test, the sustainer of personality, but it must be the obedience of choice; because choice is laborious, little children must be trained in the obedience of habit; but every gallant boy and girl has learned to choose to obey all who are set in authority.
Miss Mason also says:
…due relations must be maintained; the parents are in authority, the children in obedience; and again, the strong may not lay their burdens on the weak; nor must we expect from children that effort of decision, the most fatiguing in our lives, of which the young should generally be relieved.
Suggest that, however (and I’ve tried it before), and we balk. Because we are firmly entrenched in our very insulated bubble of First World privilege, luxury, and that very American value of individuality and individualism for all, even toddlers. We don’t even stop to think about all the ways our views on the necessity of reducing tantrums by giving two year olds more choices cannot be true in most of the world, or through most of history. We can’t even go there in our heads. It’s not just that of which we do not speak, it’s that of which we can’t even see- like a color outside the spectrum visible to the naked eye.
We simply receive as an axiomatic truth that toddlers have tantrums and therefore they probably need more opportunities to make more decisions in their lives, even though in reality, more choices generally make us more likely to be discontented. I wonder what other ridiculously First World notions we accept without even being aware of what we’ve done?