Monday, 19 July 2010

Possible disadvantages of giving children too much choice

It is an article of faith for many British home educators that their children should have as much freedom as possible to direct their own lives. It is taken as axiomatic that this freedom to decide upon what is learned, how time is spent and even upon such things as bedtimes is a good thing for the child. I have been thinking this over since my daughter's friend came to stay from America. This girl is twenty one and was raised in a completely free way; not attending school and with a huge amount of responsibility for her own life, starting from when she was a small child. I have to say at once that this lifestyle does not seem to have done her any harm from an educational perspective. She is now at a good university and has no trouble in organising her life and learning. There is a slight problem though and it is one which I have observed with other children raised in this way, whether home educated or schooled.

Many liberal parents, even if they send their children to school, try to give them as much control as possible over their lives in other ways. they allow them to choose what to eat, how they spend their leisure time, what they wear, when they go to bed and a million other things. These choices sometimes start very young; I know parents who allow their three year olds to dictate the course of their lives to a large extent. I suspect that many readers will at this point be nodding their heads approvingly and muttering to themselves, 'Yes, so what?' Young children like to have familiar routines. these are comforting to them; they know what to expect. With the family where the child is in control of matters like bedtime and what he does with his time, such routines can be absent. More than that, a child who has so much power can become scared. Often, he does not really know how to exercise this power and it all becomes a bit much for him. Besides, young children should not have to worry about deciding what they will be eating or studying. This is in any case the adult's job and it can be very disconcerting for a child to have to make decisions of this sort.

I have observed that those children in our own circle who were raised in this way, being allowed lots of choices and making decisions all the time, seem to be more neurotic and anxious than those raised in a more conventional way. This is not of course a scientific survey, I am just thinking the matter over! My daughter's friend is extremely neurotic and I talked to her about her childhood. She says that she felt unhappy as a child at having to make a lot of decisions. She felt that her parents were not in control and this was a scary feeling. This makes sense to me, because most children like to feel that their parents know everything and can always decide what to do for the best. Mind, I am not saying that this is proof of anything. For one thing a circumstance which I have not mentioned is that this young woman's mother is a child psychologist. It is a very strange thing, but I have noticed over the years that the children of specialists in childhood problems always seem to be a lot weirder than other people's kids. One of our friends was a child psychiatrist and his kids were so awful that nobody would ever babysit for him.

I have an idea that it makes children uneasy if they have not got a loving adult nearby who always knows what is best and usually tells them what they should do. I would not be at all surprised if this was a recipe for anxiety and neurosis, because instead of simply enjoying childhood such children are constantly being bombarded with choices and decisions. 'Shall I wear my red shirt or my blue one? Or shall I wear something else? Should I clean my teeth? Do I want toast or cereal? If cereal, which kind?' A great part of the pleasure of growing up is the gradual acquisition of power over one's life. For a four year old, a familiar routine and not being worried over too many choices is probably the best thing psychologically. Because for many children, these choices are a worry and I have observed that some grow up a little odd about making choices in later life.

I am not laying down any dogma here, rather mulling over what I have observed about the children whom I have known and worked with. And I have to say that those from 'progressive', middle class homes where Penelope leach was the Bible seem to me to have been on the whole more highly strung and anxious from those where more conventional and authoritative child rearing practices were the norm. There is a reason why for most of recorded hsitory parents have been authority figures and before we ditch that archetype I think that we should be very sure that a new system is as good for our children as the old one.


  1. I'd be prepared to bet that for "most of recorded history" there has been a huge variety of relationships between parents and children - affected by class, location, culture and (perhaps most important of all) individual personalities. I think that this matters are better understood as a spectrum of belief and approach rather than as a simple choice - i.e. either parent or child is in charge.




  5. Allie's right. In an autonomous family it's not a question of who's in charge. It's usually obvious from a child's reaction if she is being expected to take too much responsibility for herself, or not enough. Part of being an autonomous child is being able to ask for help when you need it, and that goes for making decisions as much as anything else.

  6. I'd agree with this. My children have sometimes needed and wanted me to take charge, and I've done so. Then I've yielded the control back to them when they've wanted it back. That kind of sensitivity and flexibility often comes from spending a lot of time with one's children IMO. They're all grown up now and aren't showing any symptoms of neurosis. Please add this data to your non-scientific survey!

  7. Anonymous at 05:09, 19 July,

    Ditto for 3 grown children.

    (another anon)

  8. Simon wrote,
    "I would not be at all surprised if this was a recipe for anxiety and neurosis, because instead of simply enjoying childhood such children are constantly being bombarded with choices and decisions. 'Shall I wear my red shirt or my blue one? Or shall I wear something else? Should I clean my teeth? Do I want toast or cereal? If cereal, which kind?'"

    Really? You think your child would have found simple choices like this stressful? If anything the opposite would have been true for my children at that age I think. I might well have taken some clothes out for them but they were entirely happy with changing them, usually for something more comfortable rather than a particular colour. Sometimes they would take their own clothes out of the cupboard, other times I would.

    Choosing your cereal is a difficult choice? This seems so alien! I would often take their current favourite cereal out of the cupboard whilst being open to them asking for an alternative. They didn't always need to make a choice but they knew they could if they wanted to. Maybe there's a difference between always giving a child a choice (asking them each time or leaving them to choose for themselves) and giving them one thing whilst being open to them requesting an alternative?

    I'm not sure why it would make choices more difficult when the child is older, this has certainly not been my experience. They know their mind and make choices much more easily than I do, for instance. I tend to dither and ponder endlessly. You'll be happy to hear that none of them suffer from anxiety and neurosis, either during their childhood or now as adults though I suppose there's still time.

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