Once Upon A Time
I grew up in small town India in the late 70s and 80s. The choices we had back then were very limited.
Reading, playing outside with friends, fighting with siblings at home, listening to stories from grandparents were our favourite pastimes. Holidays were about visiting cousins and doing the same (add a bit more adventure and innovation) things together.
Stories of our playdates were full of fun, friendships, fights, injuries, love, hate and most importantly – about play.
Electronic media was only Television (if at all there was), with just one channel that was mostly about news and documentaries. There was an entertainment hour during the week and that was like a big celebration at houses with children.
Toys were limited to spinning top, marbles, kites, skipping rope, Frisbee, ball, playing cards and at best, play kitchen and dolls. All our toys – my 2 younger sisters and I, put together fit into one permissible cabin luggage.
There was not much choice on what you could have at mealtimes. The only choice was how much. Eating all that was served on the plate was a base expectation.
There were no shopping malls. Shops – all were mom and pop stores, belonging to someone known to someone in the family. Which meant the friendly and knowledgeable shop uncles or aunties often chipped in their two cents worth in our buying decisions. Children’s involvement in making choices for themselves was limited. Children’s involvement in household decision making was so rare that if at all, got more attention than an amusing Page 3 gossip or scandalising Front Page news.
Period of Massive Change
I have since witnessed a massive change, a role reversal of sorts in household decision making. What has not changed is the dismal powers my generation has had as children in the past and continues to have as parents of today in making or influencing choices.
The reason for this partly could be, our inability to handle the rapidly changing environment. We are a generation of parents who were parented in a socio-economic environment completely different from that we are parenting our children in.
What does someone who would choose with a yes or no (even maybe is not a choice) do if suddenly offered multiple choices? What if a customer who has been treated as an ignorant student who needs a lesson, is made to feel like a king or a queen?
We, India’s choice-deprived consumer (like me, a teenager then), realised how deprived we were when Indian market opened up to the world marketers in the early 90s through globalisation and liberalisation, and a world of choices became open to us. Gradually, over the next decade we were swamped with choices. A product category that did not exist just a few years ago, suddenly had dozens of variants and an equal number of brands; fabric conditioners, breakfast cereals, deodorant, SUVs, satellite TV, branded apparel, fast food chains and even books and resources on parenting. Our generation saw a huge change unfold in our society by the time we graduated, joined the workforce, got married and had our first child.
The traditional parenting style, which we inherited from our parents, either did not apply to many situations of the modern day or at least that is what we are made to believe. So we started looking for alternatives. Modern society called for modern parenting approach. The modern parenting resources based their recommendations on equality – treating children as friends, making them feel respected and empowered through what you say and how you say it, praising the child to and not saying NO to raise her self-esteem. Our ‘elite’ international schools too have taken a cue from this and altered the traditional educational approach.
Another reason for the changing roles in family when it comes to making choices is, we – as liberalised, globalised parents of today – feel compelled to give our children everything we felt we were deprived of as children, including multiple choices and the power to choose.
The X-Factor – the biggest reason though is the emergence of a relatively new but very significant consumer segment for marketers worldwide – children. Children from ‘developing markets’ are matching children from the ‘developed markets’ in their taste, preferences, expectations, role models, ambitions and their influence on family’s buying choices to become one lucrative, homogenised target audience for advertisers worldwide of products ranging from toothpaste and detergents to luxury cars and high end spas.
The result became evident in the form of doubling of shiploads when we moved houses (countries) twice.
Cut To Now
In contrast today, our only daughter has a playroom full of games and toys in different categories – building, puzzles, board games, pretend play, dress ups, collectibles, stuffed toys, dolls with dresses and accessories, digital games and many others, besides the traditional ones. Then there are all kinds of art and craft materials, books, media, sports gear, musical instruments, cycles, skates, skateboards… It is the same with all her friends or friends of friends, girls and boys, singles and multiples. This is all at home for them to entertain themselves when they have spare time after school and sports and other scheduled activities, practice and rehearsals. And there is TV with at least ten dedicated kids’ channels, movies on demand, YouTube and the whole wild web. Children still ‘want more’.
The after-playdate stories we hear from our children today are about the latest toy (trend) that her friend has and how cool it is and why she should have one, now.
Children today want now! They want more!
EPIDEMIC OF CHOICE
They never seem to be happy with what they have and what they get. They get easily bored and disappointed. And this is true for not just my child or yours. It is an epidemic, true for so many children today living in the modern, urban, privileged world that it justifies the generalisation. Toddler tantrums, child-parent negotiations are a common sight across stores. Differences of opinions (read arguments) are omnipresent in parenting today, on – choice of food, choice of clothes or shoes, playtime choice. Parents and children are on opposite sides over CHOICE.
There is a fight between YOUR choice and MY choice – veggies vs junk food.
There are negotiations and settlements – MY choice of game, then YOUR choice of behaviour.
But there is rarely an agreement.
What’s more? Our parents, who we teamed-up with throughout our childhood are often on our children’s (their grandchildren’s) side and thus against us in this ‘Battle of Choices.’ This last bit – about grandparents taking sides – is a bit exaggerated and cannot be generalised for all grandparents, at all times, I agree. But what can be generalised is the sympathetic attitude the grandparents have towards their grandchildren especially on such occasions, that makes the battle tougher for parents.
Our children are smarter, more knowledgeable and more confident than we were. And they are no less innocent, loving and endearing than we were as children.
We, as parents, are concerned, more aware, well-read and accommodative and if I may say, more tuned-into our children than our parents were. And we are no less well meaning, selfless, loving and giving as parents than our parents were.
Why then, should it be a challenge so stressful to come to an agreeable choice of eating, playing, wearing, talking, doing and behaving.
Why should parents and children be on the opposite ends while making choices today?
Why should there be a battle at all while making a choice so obvious?
The answer lies in the questions and in a single word, the answer is – choice!
The existence of a whole lot of options, and options within the options makes choosing a confusing, distracting and often stressful process.
If this does not make sense yet, soon it will. Please be with me.