An episode of Supermarket Secrets got me thinking about childminding businesses and my own business of making products for childminders. In the episode, a jam maker with a small market stall had about 20 different types of jam that customers could choose between. As an experiment, she was asked to remove most of the jams, leaving customers with a choice of only her 5 best-selling jams. To her surprise, she started selling MORE jams than ever before.
The point of the experiment was to show that, while people like to have SOME choice, too much choice about things that don’t really matter (like flavour of jam) can cause people to get so overwhelmed that they decide it is easier not to buy any at all. By focussing the customers’ choices around just 5 flavours of jam, the customers still felt they had a choice, but without being overwhelmed by that choice.
The experiment fascinated me. I have never thought of this before! I always thought the more choice you give people the better. But I realised I needed to rethink things. The jam experiment can be applied to many businesses, from large supermarkets to childminding businesses and even to my own business with the packs I make for childminders.
Limiting children’s choices
I want to start by thinking about minded children who like and need to be given the opportunity to choose things. The more choices that you can give them, the better for building and promoting the characteristics that will make them into effective learners. But anybody who has ever asked a child ‘which toy would you like to play with?’ while staring at a cupboard full of toys, will recognise the vacant, drooling expression they will get as a response. Because the toy cupboard is too big, the decision is overwhelming, and there is too much choice.
So one way to apply the jam experiment to childminded children is to focus their choices by giving them a between two or three toys. This way, they feel they have power but without being overwhelmed. The same applies to footwear (shoes or wellies), car seat strap (which arm first?), sandwich fillings (cheese or ham?), sandwich shape (square or triangle), colour of plate (red or green) and choice of fruit (apple or banana?). Giving choices, while limiting those choices to two things you are happy for a child to choose between, gives you all the power while the child has the illusion of feeling nicely in control of his life.
Where this can really be helpful is when you are trying to get a child to try new things or to do things they don’t really want to do. They don’t want to do potty training, but if you can offer them a choice of using the potty or the big toilet, they can feel they have some power over this awful thing they are being forced to do. They don’t want to go on a walk, but if they have the choice of the park at the end of your street or the playground at the common ground, then they feel more in control. If they never want to do the arts and crafts projects or other structured activities you set up for them, have you ever tried redirecting their attention from the task by giving them a choice about something completely irrelevant: like if they would like to stand up or sit down while they work? The illusion of choice gives all the power to you, empowers the child in a good way and makes everyone more happy.
Limiting parents’ choices
The second key group of people who badly need their choices limited are parents. Parents have really important decisions they have to make all the time. By the time they get their child to your house on a morning, they have already made a hundred decisions for their child, some important and many not. They are ready to hand their child across to you and have some of the pressure removed from them for a short while.
If you ask people if they like to have choices, everybody will say yes. But what the jam experiment shows us is that most people would really like to have a few important choices to make, but not have to spend too much time choosing things that don’t matter very much. You can help parents and help yourself if you get parents to focus on the one or two decisions you really need them to make, and then helping them further by making the rest of the minor decisions for them. Here are some areas where I feel many childminders overcomplicate things for parents for giving them too much choice:
Suppose you run your business so that parents can decide which outings to send their children on. This is a common suggestion for childminders who are offering the funded hours, to give parents the ‘option’ to pay extra for outings. I disagree with this approach.
If you charge extra for these outings and let parents decide whether to send their children on them or not, then every single outing is a decision for the parent they may not really want to make. They will think they want power over this decision, but truthfully, they will be happier if it is out of their hands. Can we afford the entrance money for the farm on top of the hourly rate? Maybe we should wait and take our precious little boy there ourselves at the weekend? What if I upset my childminder by saying I’d rather he didn’t go? What if he feeds his first goat when I’m not there to take the photograph for Facebook? Parents don’t want to go through this stressful thought process for every little day trip you take to something with an entrance fee (music club, soft play etc).
When you offer parents choices about things like this that don’t really matter, then you are making them sweat and worry over choices they really don’t need to make. Giving parents choices about outings is also really annoying for you, as what will you do if one parent says no? If you have in your contract right from the start that outings are included in your fees and you take them regularly, then you have removed from that parent one extra decision they simply don’t need to bother with. By choosing your setting, they are choosing outings. Decision made. Phew.
Many childminders offer parents a choice of a hot meal or providing their own lunch. If you charge extra for the meal, many parents will feel they should bring their own from home to save money. If this decision is removed from parents, by stating in your policies that “a hot meal is included in your price and there is no discount if you want to provide your own food” means that you never have to deal with refunds at the end of the month, awful unhealthy packed lunches, or worse, asking parents to decide which days they would like a hot meal for their child this week, and which days they will providing it. Providing hot lunches as a default means that all the children eat the same thing, healthy things you have control over. Parents actually love the convenience of NOT having to make lunch each morning.
One childminder offered children (via their parents) a choice hot lunch for the week. It was a lovely idea, but then I thought about it from the parents’ point of view: I really don’t care if my child eats lasagne or a jacket potato on Tuesday – could you please just feed him so I can go to work, happy in the knowledge that he is being fed a healthy meal that I don’t have to make myself!
How you choose to structure mealtime is ultimately up to you, especially in light of the new funded hours, but remember that it is totally your choice what you do, so don’t make a rod for your own back by making the whole thing too complicated for yourself or for parents.
Prices, hourly rates and holidays
A childminder posted a question on Facebook the other day asking if she should start charging for the school run from when she leaves her house, or when she actually collects the child? She further wondered if she should still charge for the walk on days she was collecting her own child as well as the childminded ones. In my opinion, this gives the parents far too much to worry about. If you structure your payment scheme like this, then the parents will have to spend their evenings scrutinising the bill each month to make sure they have been charged correctly. You leave them with too many choices to consider.
The simple way to avoid this is to keep it simple for them by charging a flat rate before and after school. They can either take up one of your after school places at a £15 flat rate (for ex.) or they can go somewhere else. They can either keep their child with you until 6pm, or collect him earlier but there is no discount as they have paid until 6pm to hold the space.
My new Childminding Best Practice Club with monthly themed packs is intentionally designed to limit choices for childminders
One of the ways I adapted the jam idea of limiting choices was when I started the Childminding Best Practice Club a few months back. The key benefit of the Club is a monthly themed pack of activities (like space themed crafts) emailed straight to the childminder.
I really worried when I launched the Club. There are 7000 crafts with space themes for pre-schoolers online. I really worried about those 7000 space activities because I worried that people wouldn’t want to join my Club because they could just find ideas online and copy them.
But the truth is that people find 7000 preschool space craft projects completely overwhelming. You start scrolling through them and by the time you’ve looked at a few pages of ideas you are so overwhelmed you make the decision that it’s probably easier not to do space theme after all this month.
By limiting people’s choices to the seven or so ideas in the pack, that come with templates already made that just have to be printed off, childminders have responded really well to having their choices ‘focussed’ for them in this way. When offered a choice of 7000 crafts, or just 7 crafts with templates, to my surprise people have been very pleased with the ‘focus my packs have given them’ and as a result lots of childminders have joined.
Limiting choices focusses you on what is important
Parents are overwhelmed with choices at the moment, especially in regards to funding. In a market that is saturated with choice, often about decisions that don’t really matter all that much, you can really help parents by focussing their choices on the stuff that really matters in your setting. You can help yourself out too by limiting choices about things that cause you more work.
Research has shown that people actually feel more comfortable making choices when there are less items to choose from. Think about all the ways you can apply this to your own childminding business from how you treat the children, to your policies and permission forms, meals you provide, late fees and hourly prices. Look at how you structure choice on your forms and in your daily routines and ask yourself: do I really need to give the parents choice here? Is this too much choice? Am I overwhelming them with decisions they don’t really need or want to make?
Aim to make things easier on children, parents and yourself. There are so many important decisions that parents have to make – and there are many more decisions that are essentially just flavours of jam.
Childminding Best Practice Club
Join the Childminding Best Practice Club for just £2.50 each month to receive monthly themed packs emailed to your inbox.
About Kay Woods and Kids To Go
Kay Woods has been writing and selling childminding resources through her company Kids To Go since 2008. Her products include the Ultimate Childminding Checklist, the Learning Journey Plus for planning, observation and assessment and best practice resources promoting diversity, safety and childminding in the great outdoors (Forest Childcare). She is the author of the Start Learning book set published by Tarquin and she writes the free quarterly Childminding Best Practice Newsletter.
Lots of places offer help to childminders. I provide solutions.