Choice Chasm

Choice. It is a central tenet of the Montessori philosophy, both at home and at school. We feverishly emphasize the importance of adults offering children choices and allowing them to become confident decision makers. As a parent, I pride myself on finding every opportunity that I can to give my daughter the opportunity to choose for herself. In a Montessori world, choice matters.

Now is the time to clarify what we mean by “choice”. When we discuss choices in a Montessori environment, we are talking about adults empowering children to become independent thinkers and doers. Offering choices ties directly into the Montessori theories regarding freedom and limits. Namely, we must offer the children freedom and we must simultaneously establish parameters around those freedoms that limit the potential outcomes.

Offering choices to a child is a good thing. Allowing a child to do whatever he so pleases or allowing a child to have everything she wants, are not the type of choices we are talking about in a Montessori approach. In fact, I argue that children will be markedly less happy people if they have the freedom to do what they want and own every object they desire.

In 2004 a psychologist by the name of Barry Schwartz published a book called “The Paradox of Choice” that illuminates and clarifies this idea that too much choice is a bad thing. He starts of by laying out what he calls the “official dogma” regarding choice. This dogma is as follows: The job of society is to maximize the welfare of the people. – Welfare is maximized when freedom is maximized. – Freedom is maximized when the amount of choices available are increased.

On the surface, this makes a ton of sense. Of course we should have freedom and of course we should be able to make choices for ourselves. The rub comes when we begin to believe that we are most free when we have a lot of choices available to us. The truth is, while we may have freedom because we have choices we will also be less happy with whatever it is that we choose. Why is this? According to Mr. Schwartz, there are two measurable side effects of this smorgasbord of choice: (1) it produces paralysis due to fear that we might make the wrong choice, (2) it produces less satisfaction with the choice that is made because we wonder if the option with the other features would have been better.

So what does this mean for you and your children? While being encouraged to empower your child with choices you are being told that choice can be a detriment to happiness. Where does one draw the line with all of this? Well, for starters you don’t need to buy a lot of stuff and, when you do buy stuff, you can rotate out items that are no longer used or needed. Your child doesn’t need everything all the time. None of us do.

One of the reasons why the Montessori classroom isn’t packed with stuff is because we see the value in limiting the choices that we offer. When a material is being ignored or misused, we rotate it out of the room and put something different in. When this new material comes in, the children are enthusiastic about using it. They experience surprise and gratitude at having something familiar yet new in their space. You can do the same thing at home. You don’t have to have everything that your child owns out and available all of the time. It will likely feel more special to see something that hasn’t been around for a while re-appear in their room.

The next question is: how do we balance offering choices with limiting choices? A perfect real world example of this is getting ready in the morning. Parents of young children can pretty much unanimously agree that getting a child ready and out the door in the morning can be an exhaustive challenge. Some of these challenges may be due to the child becoming overwhelmed by the abundance of choices available to her at that time. By offering limited choices, we allow the child be the decision maker while creating limits that keep her safe and prevent her from becoming overwhelmed.

However, it is also critical to point out that you must be firm in requiring your child to live with the choice he has made. When you offer your child a choice between red and blue and he chooses blue, immediately put the red shirt away. If he says he changed his mind, let him know that the shirt is safe in the dresser and will be available to choose for tomorrow. He will be very angry at you, it will get ugly, and you will question yourself. Stick to requiring the choice be made and followed through with. Your child will test you on this because he will want to know if he can really trust you to provide secure limits. This fit is like a trick question. Your child will resist having to live with the choices he has made because he wants you to stand up to him and be firm. If you allow him to change his mind, you indicate that he really has the freedom to choose anything he wants in the closet and you are back at square one: with a child that is overwhelmed, paralyzed, and dissatisfied by the plethora of choice in his life.  If you stick to your guns he will learn two things: (1) you are a person that he can trust to say what you mean and give safe limits, (2) we all have to live with the choices that we make, regardless of how much we regret them.

As parents, we now have a choice to make regarding how we approach this paradox in our own household. How do we balance freedom and limits? When do we give a choice and when do we just make the choice? How much stuff do we have readily available in our homes and how much more should we bring in? Gosh, with the selection of choices available to us, we might be a little bit overwhelmed and unsure of how to choose. Now just imagine being a two-year-old trying to negotiate the choices that confront us daily in this world.


The chart below demonstrates some ways to adjust your language first thing in the morning so that your child is empowered without being overwhelmed.


Instead of saying…

Try saying…

“What do you want to wear today?”

“Do you want to wear your blue shirt or your red shirt?”

“What do you want for breakfast?”

“Would you like to have oatmeal or eggs?”

“What do you want to do while I get ready?”

“Are you going to read books or do art while I get ready?”

“What toy do you want to take in the car?”

“Do you want to bring your bear or a book in the car?”



“The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all…about the option that you chose.”
-Barry Schwartz



~ by vegucationmama on January 12, 2013.

4 Responses to “Choice Chasm”

  1. Rebecca- I really like how you worded this. I agree with giving my own child choices, but my students as well. In the classroom, I give only 2-3 choices at a time (the choices vary depending on the activity). This keeps control and it keeps the kids interested. Thank you! Anne

  2. Hi classmate, I like this blog post. It helped me to understand how limiting choices helps children become empowered decision-makers.

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