Too much of a good thing

26th July 1996 at 01:00
As the general election looms, two words will dominate each party's campaign. These are "responsibility" and "choice".

So far, choice has been accepted unquestioningly as a social, economic and political "good". Consumer choice, parental choice, viewer choice, importer choice - who will dare to gainsay its virtue? Surely, democracy is quintessentially about that which tyrannies deny: choice. More choice leads to greater freedom. More choice brings us lower prices. More choice defines the individual. More choice even enhances responsibility.

It is this last connection which makes "choice" such a potent political soundbite. Responsibility is seen to lie at the heart of choice, and vice versa. Give people what they want, and it's good for them too. The very act of taking a decision forces someone to acknowledge a commitment to the repercussions and consequences of that decision. He or she has to come face to face with the self-interest and the responsibility thus invested. There's no defence of the "nothing to do with me, guv" kind.

So, for example, give a parent the right to choose a school for their child, and they will be more likely to support the institution and their child's work in it. Or will they? If, instead, they avoid any responsibility for promoting good behaviour and use their precious choice to ignore the penalty of removal, as some parents of disruptive children are doing, the cracks in the glossy packaging begin to emerge.

What about children? Isn't choice good for them too? Certainly, choice develops autonomy and, by clarifying what they do and don't like, it also sharpens children's self-concept. The latest trend in the widening debate about children and discipline is focusing on the language of choice and consequences rather than threats and punishments. Quite right, too. Children need to realise they have a choice about how they behave. If they choose to behave inappropriately, knowing it to be wrong, then they must accept the consequences of that decision. Excuses of the "social disease" type only fudge the issue. Thinking ahead and accepting res-ponsibility are crucial components of socially acceptable behaviour.

But even with children there are flaws in the argument. With so much choice being sanctioned and thrust at adults and children alike, choice can also be used to sidestep that very responsibility it is designed to enhance.

If we don't like the outcome of our initial choice, we can avoid it by opting for an alternative. "Whoops! - sorry; wrong choice! I meant this one." Disappointment, inconvenience, doing without, even merely putting up with second best, are all in danger of being outlawed in our pain-free society. We increasingly expect, and demand, the best of both worlds, rejecting the hand fate dealt us as exemplified by homosexual men and women negotiating conception and parenthood.

Children, especially, are increasingly assuming that home and school life can be organised to avoid all superficial discomfort: "I didn't feel like doing my homework last night", or "You can visit Grandma, I'll stay at home". They are also past masters at using choice to manipulate or control adults, particularly when they feel neglected or used in their turn. The goodies then sought do not help to define real preferences but are devices to discover the limits to their "freedom" and the security that this brings. Socially acceptable behaviour is the loser again.

There are two further consequences of wider choice which should lead us all to query its seductiveness. First, more choice combined with less tolerance puts more pressure on us to make the perfect choice, which rarely exists. As Sir John Harvey-Jones once said, there is no such thing as the perfect solution. You have to pick on one and make it work. As a result, more and more people are reluctant to commit to anything in case something better comes along.

The second consequence is highlighted by the question: "Whose choice is it anyway?" One person's choice can create another person's nightmare. Ask children.

If the various election managers allow any elevated debate in the election run-up, let's hope that the predictable pilgrimages to the altar of "choice" will not herald it naively as a miracle cure for society. Taken too far, and used to underpin irresponsibility, it may yet spoil the child far more than sparing the rod ever did.

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer is an educational consultant and author of Positive parenting: raising children with self-esteem

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