Decisions, decisions: Why too much choice is leaving you an unhappy parent

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 5-year-old daughter, Viva, whose chooses you, Pikachu.

My friend and collaborator, composer Mike Watkins, used to say to me, “I wish restaurant menus only had one item on them. One thing called ‘food’. You’d walk into a restaurant and say, “Give me one ‘food’ please. And one ‘drink’.” And the food would be good and the drink would make you drunk and the server would be happy and so would you. When I’m out to relax, why do I have to make so many decisions?”

As a parent, don’t you wish more of your life was as easy as that hypothetical ordering of food?

Everyone says they want more choice. School choice. Healthcare options. Polygamy. But when you actually have to explore the labyrinthine halls of bureaucratic options, the process is maddening. Right now we’re trying to decide on a Kindergarten for Viva. Do we go with the wildly expensive boutique private schools that will cost her as much as a house by the time she graduates, and where the classes are small? And are the classes too small? Or do we go to the public school she’s zoned to where they classes might be too big? How about fighting for the magnets that are public but the cohort is decentralized and how restrictive is the theme of the school and why does a 5-year-old need testing and I’m going to lose my mind. I wish school choices were as simple as when I was but a wee lad in the country, decades ago. You either went to the one school that was by you and grew up befriending or punching your neighbors, or you ran off into the hills to run moonshine and play washtub bass. Or you were Catholic. Those were the school choices.

People think they want choices, but study after study tells us that our tiny monkey brains can’t handle all the choices modern life gives us. We suffer from a twist on “ego depletion” known as “decision fatigue,” in which our brain just plain gets tired of making decisions, and so it starts using weak heuristics and making poor decisions. This weekend I had to buy some peanut butter. (I know I shouldn’t write about peanut butter. The last time I did I get yelled at on Facebook for discriminating against the allergic. This is your trigger warning if you don’t want to read about peanut butter: Abandon all hope of not reading about crushed legumes, all ye who enter here.) I was at Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s isn’t even some juggernaut of a store with an entire aisle of nearly identical peanut butters–and yet there was peanut butter and almond butter and sun butter and crunchy and smooth and organic and something with cookies in it and the kind with stripes of jelly (that looks totally gross in the jar after the first time to take a scoop out) and some kind I’d never seen that’s actually made of cookies and cream?!  I compared calories. I compared fat. I compared price. I considered flavor and allergens and how it would pair with the breads we have and the jams we have and what Viva likes versus what Professor Foster likes versus … then I freaked out and bought the cookies and cream one.

That was not a good choice. But I was tired of thinking about it and I was sleepy and hungry and Viva was losing patience and the cookies one said “cookies” and had kicky stripes. This is how we go through life–pretending we’re making good choices but really just freaking out and grabbing stuff.

Modern life gives us an embarrassment of options, and parenting gives us an increased sense that our decisions are crucial. Never mind that most people grew up in cars with no seatbelts eating sandwiches made of cigarettes and DDT–now we research car seats and organic fruit squeezies until our eyes cross, because we’re worried about our child’s brain development and social emotional development and large motor skills and fine motor skills and STEM and STEAM and how cute their boots are.

Modern parents, particularly those in population dense areas like Chicagoland, are hyper-deliberate in their parenting. Our children are social experiments designed to create the perfect human: perfectly balanced, perfectly educated, perfectly socialized, perfectly happy. This involves a lot of choices beyond the dizzying quotidian choice of running a household. Are my child’s hobbies the right hobbies or should they take less junior reiki and spend more time in their fumage studio? Is their screen time the right amount–and right type–of screen time? Or do they need less Voltron lions and more ABC Mouse? Are their friends the right friends or should I get some replacement friends using Budlr, the new child’s friend replacement app I downloaded today. After you’ve worked out those issues, you’re going to be running errands and you’ll be asked if you should buy a three year warrantee on a bag of frozen peas and you’re going to say, “yes,” because making choices all day has used up all your choose juice.

So, how do we survive? First we can prioritize and make the big decisions in the first part of the day, like which vehicle to purchase or whether or not to get a Wampa tattooed on your back. That way, if you run out of choose juice in the afternoon, you’ll only buy a gross peanut butter and not end up with a Wampa tattoo on your back or a Honda Element.

Next, we can leave a little choose juice in the tank by making some decisions the night before. Lay out your outfits, pick where you’re going to eat lunch and make your breakfast before bed, so those choices don’t count against your brain the following day.

Finally, when it really doesn’t matter, limit your options. You might want to keep the whole field open for choosing a Kindergarten, but maybe when it’s time to buy peanut butter, arbitrarily limit yourself to the ones that contain peanut butter. You may miss out on the wonders of “cookies and cream,” but it might save some juice you’ll need to help you choose new friends for you child.

Modern life is a wonder: it’s wonderful not to be eaten by bears or die of dysentery. But the barrage of options that the privileges of the 21st century lay on us are intense. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go order a food.

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