Could ‘Overchoice’ be Harming Our Kids?

One obvious impact of the pandemic has been the reduced availability of all manner of goods – from building supplies to clothing, and even toilet paper. A quick Googling of 'supply chain problems Canada' will suggest this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

 

This impact on supply has already forced many of us to compromise and accept fewer choices, and this is a trend which may be increasingly forced upon us. Scarcity usually brings price hikes, and has many other negative knock on effects. On a positive note when there are fewer new things to buy, this shifts people’s attention to re-using and recycling which necessitates compromise.  It also reminds us to support and manufacture locally vs. globally which will no doubt reap positive changes.


A customer recently suggested that impact to the supply chain could be good for our business (at least in the short run) and of course this would benefit consignors too. This got me thinking, perhaps there are more universal benefits to be gleaned from limiting choice - benefiting society as a whole, and most importantly our children.

 

Questioning Our Choices...

 

With a whole new generation of children being born into a global, online world of almost infinite choice, is it time for a change of tack – have we reached a tipping point?  In his 1970 book Future Shock, business writer and Futurist Alvin Toffler foretold that "freedom of more choices" becomes the opposite—the "unfreedom".


Should we as parents acknowledge that by exposing ourselves (and by association, our children) to this whole new level of complexity, may we actually be harming our families? The question is - if too much choice is harming our kids what, if anything, can we do about it? 

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The Acceleration of Choice

When Henry Ford started mass manufacturing his model T, he famously said ‘Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black."  

 

Offering choices was more expensive, requiring different machines and equipment for every customization. While Ford still offer pretty limited colour options, some car makers like BMW give customers the opportunity to completely custom design their vehicles offing literally hundreds of finish options, interior choices and add on features. Now with advances in technology processes and design, manufacturers can offer a huge variety of options on an ever broadening range. 


Sneaker brand Nike allows customers to create their own sneakers - offering potentially hundreds of different personalized takes on every ‘Nike By You’ design.  


As technology has become more progressed, complexity has multiplied. With the onslaught of ecommerce and globalization, product choices have exploded exponentially in just the past 10 – 15 years. In this brave new world, it's a trend that is constantly snowballing...


But Isn't More Choice A Good Thing?


There are some definite benefits to more choice. For those who really trust their own judgement and design sense more choice can feel very liberating. In a literal sense if every wall was ‘builder’s beige’ our word would lack colour!


Children (and adults come to that) like to be allowed a degree of choice, because this helps them feel a sense of control over their own destiny.

 

It helps them feel respected and that they have an opinion that matters…building confidence and strengthening their ability to contribute.
So why then should we as parents be concerned?


The Paradox of Choice
 

With more choice comes increasing costs. We’re not talking monetary cost…although that may admittedly also be a factor, but social, emotional and environmental costs.


Let’s think about the social implications for a second. 


Growing materialism – i.e. an increasing focus on collecting stuff – perhaps we're doing this for ‘bragging rights’ or as an indicator of status through possessions? With this comes growing disparity - in a child's world this can manifest as fuel for playground bullies or added pressure for children to compete against peers.


Materialism is arguably an undesirable social construct, perhaps fuelled by our own parents, peer pressures, advertising and the media, ourselves as parents and then filtered to future generations via our kids. By shifting resources (time and money) away from quality experiences, family time and emotional connectivity, family life and society as a whole are negatively impacted.


In Barry Schwartz's book, "The Paradox of Choice," he identifies that “too much choice has a cost, and our obsession with it contributes to bad decisions, anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, paralysis, and even depression.” 


When we’re presented with a plethora of options and we buy something, there is evidence that we’re more likely to feel concern that the buying decisions we made were wrong…post purchase dissonance and anxiety that counters any fleeting gratification gleaned from buying an item!


As a retailer, some of my concern about too many choices is admittedly from a business perspective – though if something impacts us as a small business it also impacts you as a customer, hence the desire to alert people of a need for societal change. 


When customers are faced with too many options or are overly concerned that the 'perfect choice' might be just around the corner; many just opt for the simplest solution – inaction, i.e. not buying anything at all. Not a big deal when it comes to themselves, but when children are left ill-prepared for the weather, or wearing pants that are two sizes too short for them, because they're waiting out for that elusive ideal garment, it’s harder not to take issue with that.

 

Nationally and globally we see a divergence away from people buying local in favour of shopping at big box stores or online - leaving a wake of closures and increasing monopolization of just a few bigger players - who, having eradicated their competition, can now command ever increasing prices - thanks to shortages they ironically helped create.


Buying ‘paralysis’ is very obvious, especially with new parents who are bombarded with so many options – dozens of diaper brands, strollers, breast-pumps, styles of onesies etc. We have seen new parents stress so much about not having organic bedding or the exact brand of nursing pillow they’ve heard about online.


The Catch 22 is that this recently created demand for infinite choice, and increasing unwillingness for many to compromise, is killing the choices that local retailers can offer. The more locals forgo the (admittedly more limited) offerings from local stores, and opt to shop at national retail chains - the less stores are willing (or financially able) to carry.


Small retailers can never offer as many choices as you can get online, but they can offer a few, and will continue to do so …but only as long as locals buy them!
 

The Environment


There is a huge environmental cost to new manufacturers and stores providing such an array of options to people, which we don’t always consider.  


Ironically our business model is only made possible because we live in a society of too much choice – an excess of great condition clothing, books, toys and footwear helps keep us stocked…so why do we care?

 

We care because this is bigger than us.


As we tap into a global supply, the carbon footprint of every online purchase is easily offset by the impression that the shipping cost is ‘free’. It’s easy to ignore the true cost, the irreversible impact to the world’s rapidly diminishing blue water supply when we can enjoy new collections churned out from a broad selection of fast-fashion retailers every month.  There’s no getting away from the fact that our kids need rain jackets and winter boots and mitts etc. But do they really need 15 different brand options for each in 12 different colours, and if there are already great gently-used options out there do we always need to go for new?


When big box store and online customers cram clearance sale items at cost prices into wire or virtual shopping carts (benefiting from the results of over production beyond realistic demand) it’s easy to forget in our hunger for a deal, that this is merely providing cash flow to further fuel this harmful cycle.

 

Reducing The Impact of Too Many Choices – What Can Be Done?

Acknowledging that we may all be part of the problem could well be the first step to making some positive changes…and yes… we’re equally guilty of this. The next time we go to buy something on Amazon think would I rather support Jeff Bezos in his space tourism ambitions, or encourage local businesses to bring in options my kids could enjoy, and keep the dollars here. On the flip-side local stores equally have a responsibility to be better than the alternative. We need to keep competitive, and to offset any (often unavoidable) price difference or reduced choice...perhaps by adding value through more personalized customer service and better shopping experiences.

 

Not allowing our children to always call the shots is also important. While it’s a good idea to carefully pick the battles we have with our kids, allowing them too many choices (especially at too early an age) is overwhelming and stressful to a child (ill-equipped with the full decision making capabilities of an adult). 

 

The challenges of shopping with a child in tow, can result in driving parents online where they can get find exactly what the child wants but without tantrums or arguments. But is this forfeiting an opportunity to connect with and guide their children, equipping them the increasingly important skills of navigating through the confusion themselves. In the excellent book " Hold on to Your Kids" Clinical Psychologist Gordon Neufeld PHD and Gabor Mate MD, emphasize the dangers of such 'attachment voids' more frequently born through time pressures, economic and technology driven forces resulting from modern 'advances'.

It’s well known that psychologists recommend giving your child only two choices at a time - and for many good reasons. In addition to the aforementioned problems this creates it may also be harmful to teach children they can always get what they want, when they want it – leading to a level of entitlement and compounding dissatisfaction. Limiting choices can result in kids hearing parents say 'no' occasionally - which, while not always the easy option, is an important component of attachment parenting that better prepares them for the real world.

When it comes to shopping gently used, our most content customers are those who have learned to shop with an open mind - dealing with the more limited selection available to them. When customers come in looking for just one specific item, occasionally that will work, but the odds are against it! Consider using a second-hand shopping experience as a teaching aid to educate your children on the significance of compromise and planning ahead, the impact of our choices and why less can be more.


By thinking ahead to next year or considering what they will wear 3 months from now, finding a book that might work for an upcoming birthday or being open to different colours or design - shoppers can usually find way more things their kids will use. Ultimately saving them money (via lower prices and or using store credit) and avoiding the need to buy new online.
 

Conclusion


Having some choice is a good thing and something we need to encourage…but we must collectively do what we can to ensure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far.


Whether you realize it or not, as a shopper and consignor at our store, or any other consignment or resale store or group, you are already making very positive steps towards societal change – an acceptance that brand new is not the only solution, if a small amount of compromise is made. Thankfully we no longer live in a time that re-using items for your children is considered the choice for the less well off. Today it’s more frowned upon if you don’t!

 

Of course we must also acknowledge that without new there would be no second-hand, and there are just certain things we can’t get used - so are forced to buy new. But if we can do this locally it will help us all. Buying local and supporting local stores is self-fulfilling – the more we do it collectively – the better the choices and prices we’ll be able to find. Conversely the more we shop online the less local stores will be able or willing to carry. 


It’s not easy to work with reduced choices. It takes a dedicated effort - accepting used over new,  being content with less choice, understanding  that local may sometimes cost a little more, or sacrificing time to shop local vs. buying online. It is important that as parents we are aware of the anxiety too many choices can have on a child.

 

We must also set the right example and imbue our children with the skills they'll need to navigate this multitude of choices with confidence. We need to protect but not smother them. And use every shopping experience as an opportunity to equip them with an understanding of the pressures of popular culture, economics, advertising, media and their peers. 


What’s important is that as a society we are aware that too much choice has many hidden costs, and if we acknowledge the dangers of this, both businesses and consumers alike can make positive behavioural changes in the right direction.


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