Decisions, decisions

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.

and here:

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?

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9 Comments

  1. Katie M
    Posted July 1, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    As a parent of a toddler I found this especially interesting; I’m always trolling for ideas to avoid the dreaded “tantrum.” AND as I, too, have been paralyzed by the myriad of products in the hair-care aisle, I don’t dispute the problem of decision-overload in our society.

    Yet…a few months back I read this article (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/16/best-practices-for-raising-kids-look-to-hunter-gatherers.html). Not only does it suggest that individualism and freedom of choice–even for children– aren’t exclusively American (or even “first-world”) traits, it theorizes that perhaps the problems is that we don’t give children enough independence.

    Then again, maybe it’s not especially valuable to compare the “choices” a toddler in a jungle village in Brazil has to those she might have in an American suburb. What do you think?

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted July 1, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      I think some choices are more natural than others- the choice of what to do with free time, free play, and playing spontaneous games rather than organized sports and organized play dates makes sense to me. Sending a kid out to the backyard to play as he chooses, with only light supervision from Mom so he does not choose to eat the toadstools, letting him figure out ‘how’ and what to play without the ‘convenience’ of toys or television- I’m in favor of that, and opposed to organized teams and play for tots.

      But the idea that choosing what to wear and what to eat and what kind of toothpaste Mom buys, and choosing a new toy at the grocery store because the child did not behave like a monster- those are artificial, very first world, very consumer minded, and very stressful. I also suspect that toddlers in a jungle village are given chores- picking berries, picking up sticks for the fire, shooing flies off the baby, maybe, and not given much choice about that. The ‘independence’ they have is connected with responsibilities to the family and community and we do not give our tots much by way of meaningful responsibility.

      • Elizabeth
        Posted July 1, 2013 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

        I truly believe that allowing children to choose clothes (providing choices is ok), food options, or purchases encourages a household controlled by the children. children, by their nature, cannot understand the consequences of their decisions unless they are taught (my kids learn early about food choices). This is the very thing that leads to tantrums and meltdowns in the middle of the cereal aisle. too many parents allow this behavior trying to teach their children independce when all it creates is adult children who feel entitled to, well, everything.
        I don’t think it’s just kids in villages in the middle of nowhere that have independence tied to responsibility. I live in a small town. My 4 yo goes out to the garden to pick veggies for me. My friend’s 4 yo gathers eggs with minimal supervision. Her 8 yo milks their goat by herself. Children who grow up on farms learn responsibility as toddlers. They learn respect for their land and their animals. They are given freedom to roam (within reason) because they learn boundaries and limits. They learn to appreciate what they have and what their parents provide. This, of course, isn’t true for every family and there are other examples within our own society.

        • Headmistress, zookeeper
          Posted July 1, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I agree that there *are* families in the First World who give their kids meaningful responsibilities and independence- we do, too. I just meant ‘we’ in a general, cultural sense.

          • Elizabeth
            Posted July 1, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

            Based on other posts i have read about your family I figured you were referencing the larger cultural phenomenon.

  2. abba12
    Posted July 1, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I remember being allowed to pick a lolly or toy at the shops, i would spend forever agonizing over the decision! I also see this in modern homeschooling mums, agonizing over the hundreds of curriculums available, trying to find the right one, and the recomendation of choppinng and changing for each child and stage of life. When i was a kid being homeschooled it was nowhere near as overwheling, you could easily analyze the few options available, and be confident in your choice. For example, there were saxon families and there were maths u see families (and a couple of other minorities) now you can never be sure you have chosen the best curriculum because you cant possibly think through all options.

    I think its important for my toddler to have decisions to make, but i scale them down. When we go to the lolly isle at the shops, i pick two or three things for her to choose from instead of offering the whole shelf. She only has about 5 toys available at a time, which are rotated weekly. She occasionally gets to pick between two lunch choices. But i also make a lot of decisions for her. She didnt get to choose what to eat at the church potluck last week.

    I think the broad choices we have today are bad, im tired of spending hours trying to decide something because there are so many options to examine

  3. Cindy Watson
    Posted July 1, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I wish I had stumbled upon Charlotte Mason when my kids were younger. I have found I did many things like she suggested but missed things I wish I hadn’t.

  4. Vi
    Posted July 1, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    I understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by too many choices very well indeed!

    You may or may not have seen this, but “decision fatigue” has been found to have some interesting consequences in many areas, including the judicial system.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted July 2, 2013 at 2:38 am | Permalink

      Wow- that is a fascinating article. Thanks for sharing it.

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