On Sunday morning I entered the kitchen to find the children’s breakfast on the wall, my husband’s head in his hands and two purple-faced children screaming ‘Toast! Coco Pops! Ice cream on toast!...’
‘All I did’, he sobs, ‘Is let them choose what they wanted for breakfast.’
Oh the folly! I remind Him Indoors that no more than two alternatives should be presented to children at any time – anything more is like opening Pandora’s Box.
Yet it strikes me that his well-intentioned mistake illustrates the main flaw in our free-market economy. Human beings enjoy the illusion of choice far more than the reality. In fact, too much choice brings out the very worst in our characters.
Britain’s social ills regularly seize the headlines – obesity, household debt, teenage sexuality – and the stock response of politicians is to present more education, more commercially-sponsored initiatives, more bewildering choice. When will they consider the idea of cutting back the opportunities for people to make bad choices in the first place? Tories maintain that the individual should be capable of exercising restraint, that it is right to give enterprise a free hand. But it’s so draining having to constantly resist temptation. How sad that we squander much of our intellectual energy just processing an endless stream of unsought-for choice.
In the past England was characterised by manufacturing and agriculture. The sheer physicality of the working week, plus a sermon on self-control, kept over-indulgence at bay. But those checks and balances are gone. Meanwhile our shared spaces are run on purely commercial lines and our culture is dominated by advertising.
My husband is dubious about my social theories but impressed when he enters the kitchen and finds both children crunching politely on their breakfast.
‘So you just told them to eat what they’re given?’
‘Oh no! I gave them a choice: Coco Pops or gravel.’
The youngest spits out a pellet of limestone from between her milk teeth and smiles. Oh well. It doesn’t work every time.