How making choice is ruining parents.

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April 29 2004 5:05 PM

You Have Choices I Never Had

The new parenting problem.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

A few years ago, as my daughter was anticipating the birth of her first child, she asked my wife and me to help her shop for a stroller. We went to the store and found dozens and dozens of options. Combined stroller-car seats, combined stroller-carriages, stand-alones, joggers, umbrella types, strollers that reclined to horizontal, those that reclined to almost horizontal, strollers with heavy-duty wheels, strollers with lots of storage—on and on it went. Each type had its pluses and minuses. Making a choice took several hours, and we left feeling uncertain we had made the right one.

Thus was I introduced to parenting in modern America: an endless series of choices. Cribs, highchairs, baby foods, diapers. Nursery schools and pediatricians. Books, videos, TV shows. Which "expert" to read and to trust when facing a moment of child-rearing minicrisis.

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And as the child gets older, the choices grow more numerous, and they seem more consequential. Public, private, or parochial school. Forms of religious instruction. Academic enrichment after school, or sports (which sport), or music (what instrument). Summer camp (which type), when to permit ear piercing, how to regulate Internet access, what kind of restriction to place on TV watching. How do parents cope with the seemingly limitless alternatives—with all the dizzying information and awesome responsibility?

Based on a growing body of research summarized in my recent book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, they don't cope too well. My colleagues and I, along with other researchers, have found that as choices proliferate, people have a harder and harder time making decisions. And they end up less satisfied with the decisions they make. They are filled with regret over those that turned out well but might have been better; they develop unrealistically high expectations; and when decisions disappoint, as they almost always do because of these expectations (we bought a terrific stroller and left the store dissatisfied that we couldn't find the perfect one), they blame themselves. The result is stress, unhappiness, and in extreme cases, clinical depression.

My colleagues and I also found that the problem of choice overload is especially severe for people who aspire to achieve the very best with every decision. (We call them "maximizers.") The only way to know you have the best is to research all the possibilities. In the world we live in, that takes an inordinate amount of time or is just plain impossible. People who are satisfied with "good enough," (we call them "satisficers") may be flummoxed when they go to buy a stroller, but they won't need to investigate every alternative before making a choice, and they won't beat themselves up if they find that another option would have been better. For greater peace of mind and a sense of well-being, we advise people to teach themselves to be satisfied with good enough.

But whereas it may be possible to settle for a good enough car, a good enough stereo, a good enough 401(k), even a good enough job, have you ever heard anyone say, "I only want what's 'good enough' for my kids"? I haven't. When it comes to our kids, only the best will do.

Based on our research, I believe that parents who put pressure on themselves to make the best choices for their kids are making a serious mistake. They may end up with better strollers, teachers, pediatricians, schools, and recreational activities than satisficers do. But the burden they bear, and the price they pay, will be reflected in their interaction with their kids. The time parents spend finding the best stroller is time they will not be spending playing with or talking to their child. The time they spend finding the best books is time they will not spend reading to their child. Dragging their bored, ignored kids along as they go from store to store in search of exquisite clothing or educational toys is hardly the optimal milieu for parent-child interaction. And though shopping online can spare parent and child the mutual torture of going to mall after mall, the range of possibilities provided by online shopping creates its own kind of bewilderment and exhaustion.

Choice overload has other unfortunate effects. The aspiring parent provides the child with a model of perfectionism, one that may well create a great deal of stress, anxiety, indecision, and dissatisfaction in the child when she is making her own choices—even when those choices bring perfectly good results. It may induce parents to take too much control over their children's lives. When you invest inordinate time and effort in, for example, furnishing the child's room (and it's hard not to when so many possibilities abound), you may find it hard to tolerate the mess kids make of their things. What was all that effort for? And in efforts to provide their kids with a wide array of exciting and educational activities, parents may so overschedule them that the children have no time to be by themselves—to imagine, to create, or just to hang out. Indeed, kids may have no time to be themselves or to figure out what kind of selves they want to be. (One reason why parents may overschedule their kids is that the parents themselves are so overwhelmed by the array of attractive possibilities that they don't know which to choose.)

I am convinced that kids will, in general, be better served by good-enough strollers—and maybe even good-enough teachers and pediatricians—and relaxed, happy parents than they will be by the best strollers, pediatricians, and teachers and anxious, unhappy parents. Nonetheless, if parents find it impossible to settle for "good enough" in general, they can try to follow another suggestion I make in my book. Parents can choose when to choose. They can knock themselves out finding the best school or the best teacher, but not when selecting strollers or DVDs. If parents can develop the attitude that good enough is good enough most of the time, it will help them to be much better than good enough at what matters most—being engaged and energetic in their interactions with their child.

The author wishes to thank Allison Dworkin for several insightful suggestions.

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