Too many CHOICES: The paradox for parents

A family friend, pregnant with her first child, decided it was time to buy a stroller. Armed with Consumer Reports ratings and customer feedback from various baby gear websites, she headed for the nearest baby superstore, where literally dozens of options awaited her.

There were combined stroller-car seats, stroller-carriages, joggers, umbrella strollers, strollers that reclined to horizontal, those that reclined to almost horizontal, all-terrain strollers, ultra lightweight strollers, strollers with lots of storage -- on and on it went. Each stroller had its pluses and minuses. She was bewildered, and after spending close to two hours pushing empty strollers through crowded aisles, left without making a purchase.

Parenting experiences such as this one are commonplace in modern America. Many times each day, parents scratch their heads as they research options, weigh pros and cons, and worry about making the wrong choice.

Which crib, highchair or diapers to buy? How to select among the array of lovely children's books and educational toys? Which health foods (organic, hormone-free, non-hydrogenated) to purchase? What form of child care to opt for (nanny, daycare, nanny-share)? When to use antibiotics? Whether to allow TV or videos, and if so, which shows? Which "expert" to trust when facing picky eating, night waking or some other child-rearing mini-crisis?

It is fortunate to live in a culture in which freedom of choice is so highly valued, and to have the resources and means that afford such choices. And yet there is mounting evidence to suggest that the plethora of choices parents now face, and the pressures associated with choosing, can have ill effects -- on parents and their kids.

'The Paradox of Choice'
Decades of research indicate that freedom of choice is good for our mental and physical health. And it seems reasonable to assume that if some choice is good, then more choice is better. But based on research summarized in the recent book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (by the coauthor of this article, Barry Schwartz), there is growing reason to question that assumption, however reasonable it may seem.

Researchers have found that as choices proliferate past a certain point, people tend to get overloaded. They have increasing difficulty making decisions and end up less satisfied with the choices they finally do make. They are likely to experience regret over their choices -- even those that turn out well -- because they can easily imagine that another option might have turned out better. They develop unrealistically high expectations about the results of their decisions. And when decisions disappoint, as they almost always do because of those high expectations, they blame themselves. All of this can result in stress, anxiety, unhappiness, pessimism and -- in extreme cases -- clinical depression.

The choice problem is perhaps most acute when it comes to making choices for others, especially our children. Parents bear an awesome responsibility for their children's welfare, and many who claim they are willing to "settle" when it comes to themselves apply a different standard when it comes to their kids: that only the best will do.

All manner of choice
One of the first, and most difficult, choices that some parents face is whether to return to a job after having kids. For many moms and dads, it is an economic necessity that they continue to work outside the home. For others, however, this decision constitutes a choice, and one that can be as agonizing as it is beneficial.

"The decision to return to work was the hardest one I made, and I faced it not just once but twice since we have two kids," says Seattle resident Mary Janisch, an editor at Microsoft and mother of Aidan, 2, and Keean, 9 months. "With some sacrifices, we could have afforded to have me stay home. Having the choice made me constantly question whether I was doing the right thing for myself, the kids and our family. If we had not had a choice in the matter, I may have dwelt on it less."

Janisch, who tends to "research like crazy" so she feels well-informed about her decisions, says she's surprised by all the choices she's already had to make regarding her young kids. "There are the music classes, the gym classes, the co-ops. These classes aren't mandatory, of course, but you want to be sure that your kids can 'do' circle time, that they can play nicely with other kids, that they cultivate their natural talents."

And choice overload doesn't end as toddlers grow up and become more independent. Indeed, parents are likely to find that choices increase, and feel more important, as children get older. This precipitates struggles with choices over sports and other extra-curricular activities, religious education, summer programs, TV and video games, Internet access, clothing, driving privileges, money and dating.

In Seattle, unlike many other communities, even public school assignment follows a choice model, where parents rank their school preferences and a computer system makes assignments. This means that parents bear responsibility not just for choosing a community in which to live (and the school that goes with it), but for researching an undefined number of candidate schools in search of the one that's the best fit for their child. For some families, private schools provide yet another layer of options.

Busy parents like Janisch often rely on the Internet for help with their research and shopping, to save time and minimize the mutual pain of parent-child shopping trips. But the Web plays its own role in the problem of choice overload. The limitless options and access to information that it makes possible can be overwhelming and can make parents feel like they really have no excuse for settling, or making a choice that proves less than ideal.

Janisch says what she finds most burdensome about all this decision-making is that she's not the only parent looking for the best for her kids. "Naturally, other parents are, too. Many programs have registration procedures and deadlines, and there can be intense competition for spaces. I find that competition nerve-wracking."

The number of choices a parent is required to make, combined with the range of options available for each, can be dizzying and extremely draining of time and energy. It is common to hear parents say that researching and making choices on behalf of their kids feels like a full-time job. For many moms and dads there is simply not enough time in the day to manage this task. The nagging feeling that there is more they could be doing to provide the best opportunities for their kids can lead to increased stress and anxiety for many parents.

Maximizers and satisficers

The effects of choice overload are especially severe for people who aspire to achieve the very best with every decision. (The Paradox of Choice refers to them as "maximizers.") The only way to know they've made the best possible choice is to research all the possibilities, and in the world we live in, that either takes an inordinate amount of time or is just plain impossible.

In contrast, people who are satisfied with "good enough" (called "satisficers") may still be baffled when they go to buy a stroller, but they won't need to investigate every alternative before making a choice. Once they find an option that meets their needs, they will consider the search over, and they will be much less likely to experience distress, regret or the desire to start all over if they later discover that another option might have turned out better.

Seattle architect and parent Martin Kaplan, an admitted maximizer, is driven personally and professionally by the pursuit for the right, or best, choice. However, he also acknowledges its high costs, in time and angst. Kaplan says that decisions relating to his child, 5-year-old Sydney, are by far the most challenging he's faced: "When it comes to parental decisions, my bar is raised to an Olympic level," he says.

For Kaplan, the most significant example has been his effort to choose an elementary school for Sydney, which he says consumed "just shy of 24 hours a day" for several months. Yet Kaplan, who makes choices by "obsessing over task, research, options and final decision," says that he generally considers his commitment to the best to be a privilege rather than a burden.

Choice overload and parenting

Barbara Swenson, a Mercer Island-based parent educator, is very familiar with parents' struggle to provide only the best for their kids -- and the toll it can take. "Perfection is impossible to achieve, and parents who are always striving for the impossible have no energy left to love and enjoy their kids," she says, adding that too many choices can result in what she calls "perfect-parent syndrome."

"There are so many choices available to parents today that somehow they have developed the thinking that it is possible to make a perfect choice," she says. "In the past, parents with fewer choices held much more to a philosophy of 'make do.'"

Parents who put pressure on themselves to make the best choices for their kids in every domain may in effect be substituting the pursuit of quality goods for the pursuit of quality time. They may end up with better gear and activities than satisficers do, but the price they pay in achieving the best, day after day, will be reflected in their interactions with their kids. The endless shopping trips and long car rides to this or that elite sports league or dance class can take a cumulative toll on parent and child alike.

Choice overload may also contribute to parents' temptation to over-schedule and over-control their kids' lives. Swenson often cautions parents against providing their kids with so many exciting and educational activities that they end up lacking in time to imagine, create or just hang out. Over-scheduling also makes for irritable parents, "who feel that life is impossible to manage and yet continue to push themselves to do more," she says.

One likely explanation for over-scheduling is that parents are so overwhelmed by the array of attractive possibilities for their kids, and so afraid of missing opportunities, that they opt for too many activities. And given the effort they have put in to making such choices, it is not a surprise that parents often become overly invested in their outcomes and frustrated if they don't pan out as intended.

Helping kids cope with choice

Children are keen observers, and it is through watching their parents make choices that they gain tools for doing their own choosing as they get older. Parents who continually seek the best are modeling a perfectionism that may create a great deal of anxiety, indecision and dissatisfaction in their child when she is making her own choices, even when those choices bring perfectly good results.

As Swenson puts it, "it is essential to kids' healthy development that they see their parents make (and recover from) mistakes and make the most of less-than-optimal conditions."

Our friend who agonized over the stroller choices described an outing to a pharmacy during which she gave her 4-year-old son the opportunity to choose which box of children's Band-aids to buy. After minutes of agonized deliberation over the dozen or more options, the child finally asked his mother to narrow the range of choices to just two and let him choose between those. For kids like this one, who probably have maximizer tendencies, it would be helpful for parents to model a relaxed approach to decision-making that seeks "good enough" as the optimal outcome.

Ginny Cahill-Thorson, a seventh-grade teacher at Madison Middle School in West Seattle and mother of Britt, 16, and Maren, 11, says her daughters are very tuned in to their parents' decision-making process and frequently look to them for help in sorting through situations with many variables and options.

For tweens and teens, choices are often bound up with social and identity issues, which make them that much more complex, Cahill-Thorson says. She feels it's important to teach kids commitment and responsibility when it comes to decision-making -- that they must follow through on their choices despite the constant presence of new and different options.

It's difficult to parent teens in a world with so many choices, Cahill-Thorson admits. "There's so much stuff out there -- from video games to music to websites -- and as parents, we can't trust that it's good for our kids," she says. "It puts pressure on us to become familiar with a vast and constantly changing world of products." Sometimes Cahill-Thorson has to simplify her kids' options by making categorical choices on their behalf. For instance, she chose to prohibit instant messaging when she saw how complicated it would be for her kids to make good choices about using it appropriately.

The tension between making choices on our kids' behalf and empowering them to do their own choosing is fundamental to parenting. However, living in a choice-centered culture makes that tension far more pervasive. By all apparent measures, the culture of choice is here to stay. In order to help kids reap its benefits, parents must also be aware of its costs.

Allison Dworkin is an editor and writer living in Seattle with two daughters, ages 5 and 2. Barry Schwartz, her father, is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Penn., and the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Ecco Press, 2004).

Are you a maximizer or a satisficer?

The Maximization Scale was developed to determine whether there are important differences among individuals in the decision-making strategies they use. The results of investigations conducted so far have been striking. People who score high on the scale are less happy, less optimistic, less satisfied with their lives, more prone to regret and more depressed than people who score low on the scale. This pattern of results is already present in 12-year-old kids.

To see where you fall on the Maximization Scale, consider the statements below and assign each a number between 1 (completely disagree) and 7 (completely agree), then add up your score. The higher your score, the more you tend toward being a maximizer. An average score is around 25.

  1. No matter how satisfied I am with my job, it's only right for me to be on the lookout for better opportunities.
  2. When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I'm listening to.
  3. When I watch TV, I channel surf, often scanning through the available options even while attempting to watch one program.
  4. I treat relationships like clothing: I expect to try a lot on before finding the perfect fit.
  5. When shopping, I have a hard time finding clothing that I really love.
  6. No matter what I do, I have the highest standards for myself.
  7. I never settle for second best.

This scale is adapted from the complete Maximization Scale published in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz.

Advice for parents: Choose when to choose

For greater peace of mind and a sense of well-being, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, advises parents to train themselves as much as possible to be satisficers rather than maximizers -- to be satisfied with good enough.

"I believe that kids will be better served by this than by having the best of life served up to them by parents who are stressed, distracted and dissatisfied," Schwartz says. "I realize that it may be especially difficult to settle for good enough when the welfare of our kids is at stake; yet doing so may be the best way to promote that welfare."

By settling for good enough in most cases, Schwartz notes, parents can reserve their time and energy for those instances in which making the "best," or "right," choice for their kids really matters. In other words, they can knock themselves out applying a best-test in the search for a school or pediatrician, while settling for the stroller that's fine but not perfect and the ballet class that's close to home.

"If parents can develop the attitude that good enough really is good enough most of the time, it will help them to be much better than good enough at what matters most -- being engaged, energetic, attentive and loving in their interactions with their children," he adds. "It will also enable them to model for their kids a healthy approach to navigating the sea of choices that they will soon be responsible for making for themselves."

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