Monday, September 16, 2013

Choices, Choices, Too Many Choices!

I was listening to the radio today in the car. Just the regular radio. One of the local stations. Actually, six of the local stations - I flipped from preset to preset as commercials came on or songs I didn't like were playing. I enjoyed it immensely. I loved the surprise of what song might come next. I liked hearing songs I've heard often and songs I haven't heard in a long time. I liked cranking up the volume on the ones I especially love, and disliked having to turn it back down when one of my kids had something to say. This is all totally normal and ordinary behavior, of course, but I haven't engaged in this particular activity in a while, because we got 90 days free of Sirius-XM satellite radio when we bought the minivan, and that 90 days just ran out last week. I haven't listened to regular-old live radio in a long time (before that, it tended to be a single CD on repeat to please the little-'uns).

Similarly, we subscribed to some basic cable channels when we moved, after quite a while without having any live TV to watch. There's a certain joy in sitting back on the couch with the TV remote in hand, flipping channels until you find something interesting, browsing during commercials. We've had Netflix for so long, and have relied upon them exclusively, that I'd forgotten how relaxing it can be to simply watch what's on.

It occurred to me today, while flipping back and forth among the six radio stations in my presets, that there's a lesson here for us as parents. Sometimes there can be too much choice. Sure, it's pretty awesome when you can choose from 60,000 TV episodes and movies from all over the world through your various streaming TV options. It's amazing to have hundreds of commercial-free radio stations to browse through on your satellite radio. But I felt so much more relaxed simply letting the radio choose for me, to be totally reliant on whatever the DJ and the radio producers felt should come next.

We are inclined, in this day and age, to offer our kids choices. What do you want to wear? What do you want to eat? Where do you want to go? We feel like we should give them some control over their lives where we can, because we control so much of what they do every day.

But kids can become overwhelmed by the infinite choices of those open-ended questions. What if kids' lives were more like live TV and less like Netflix? What if we could give them the option to watch "Wild Kratts" or "Dora the Explorer" but not include every other PBS and Nickelodeon show ever made? They could then only watch whichever episode of "Wild Kratts" is on, without having to choose from dozens of them. I've found my kids tend to watch the same few over and over again, possibly because choosing from the myriads of options is just too much. It's too hard. It's too complicated.

And, there's the problem when giving open-ended choices backfires on you. "What do you want to eat?" might end in a choice that isn't available. And then you have to deal with disappointment and let-down when they ask for spaghetti with tomato sauce and you don't have any. And then they don't want whatever you do offer, because you asked what they wanted and then denied them that option! (Case in point, when Netflix's contract with Nickelodeon ended a couple months ago and Dora and Diego disappeared from the list of options, my toddler was devastated! And there wasn't anything I could do about it...until we signed up for Amazon Prime. Sigh.)

I'm usually in favor of the "Do you want this or this?" style of offering options. Do you want to wear the giraffe shirt or the cow shirt? Do you want to eat macaroni and cheese or chow mein? This, at least, brings the options down to what's actually available, and it allows you to still direct what they do while giving them the illusion of control.

But this can backfire, too. What if they don't want either of those options and they refuse to choose? What if they expect to be given a choice when you have no intention of giving one? What if they have to wear the blue track pants because everything else is dirty and you haven't done the laundry yet? What if the only thing you have in the house for dinner is hamburgers?

I'm often happy to simply hand over control to someone else. "Where do you want to go for brunch?" "I don't care, you pick" is akin to "Let's just listen to the radio" rather than starting up your iPod playlist. I think kids are that way as well. I don't think "I don't know" as an answer to "What do you want to eat?" is necessarily them being intentionally unhelpful. I think sometimes it's genuinely choice burnout. They really, honestly, don't know, because trying to think of every food they've ever eaten and pick which of those foods they want right now is just too overwhelming. Do I want to watch "West Wing" or "Star Trek" or "30 Rock" or "Frasier" or a movie? Do I want a comedy or a drama or a cartoon? Do I want to start at the beginning or choose from one of the 250 episodes available? I don't care anymore! You pick!

Choice becomes noise after a while. It becomes stressful to have to decide. Let's bring the choices down to a few things that don't matter so much. Let's eliminate some of the clutter in our own minds and streamline the process. And let's enjoy the fact that sometimes there isn't a choice, rather than let that get us down. Hopefully our kids can learn to see the positive in that, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment