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Parenting: Decision Making

Help Your Children Become Good Decision Makers

Decision making is one of the most important skills your children need to develop to become healthy and mature adults. Decision making is crucial because the decisions your children make dictate the path that their lives take. Teaching your children to make their own decisions has several benefits. When they make a good decision, they can gain the greatest amount of satisfaction and fulfillment because they chose it. When your children make bad decisions, they may suffer for it, but they can learn from the experience and make better decisions in the future.

Popular culture wants to take your children's decisions out of their hands-and yours-and make your children's decisions for them. Popular culture short-circuits your children's decision making by pushing their "hot buttons" related to peer acceptance, physical attractiveness, and stimulation. When these hot buttons are pushed, children who are poor decision makers are ready prey to the inevitable bad decisions when they listen to popular culture.

Making Bad Decisions

Whenever I speak to a group of young people, I ask how many of them have ever done anything stupid in their lives. With complete unanimity and considerable enthusiasm, they all raise their hands. When I then ask how many of them will ever do anything stupid in the future, the response is equally fervent. I also ask children why they do stupid things. Their responses include:

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  • I didn't stop to think.
  • It seemed like fun at the time.
  • I was bored.
  • Peer pressure.
  • I didn't consider the consequences.
  • To get back at my parents.

The fact is it's part of your children's "job" to do stupid things. Bad decision making is an essential part of their road to maturity. A problem arises, however, if their poor decision making continues. This usually occurs when parents don't hold them responsible for their poor decisions, instead, bailing them out of the trouble their children get into. These children learn that they aren't responsible for their decisions and can continue to do stupid things without fear of consequences.

Raise Good Decision Makers

Encouraging your children to make their own decisions isn't as simple as saying, "You make the decision. You're on your own." Instead, ceding decision making to your children is an incremental process based on their age and maturity. It would be downright dangerous to give children complete latitude in their decision making. But you can begin to teach decision-making skills in small doses even with very young children. For example, you wouldn't tell your children they can have any treat they want in a convenience store. They would be overwhelmed with the choices and paralyzed with indecision, or they would want everything in the store. What you would do is give them a choice among jawbreakers, licorice, and bubble gum (or, better yet, sesame sticks, fruit wraps, and yogurt peanuts) and they would then decide which treat they want.

As your children get older, you can expand the number of choices you give them. You can also increase the importance of the decisions they make, for example, what activities they participate in or when they choose to go to bed. With each decision, you want them to recognize whether their decisions were good or bad and that they're responsible for the consequences of their decisions. By making this connection, they can see that their decisions are their own. Of course, you should retain veto power when needed, but it should be used judiciously.

The Process of Good Decision Making

A part of helping your children gain experience with making decisions involves educating them about the decision-making process. Good decision making is complex and takes years of experience to master (no one ever really perfects it; even adults do stupid things occasionally).

Because children lack experience and perspective, they tend to make decisions that are impulsive and focused on immediate gratification. The first step is simply to teach them to stop before they leap. With just a few seconds of hesitation, your children can prevent a lot of bad decisions. Of course, getting children to stop before jumping would require them to think, which is usually not part of their repertoire. You can help your children by "catching them in the act," meaning when you see them about to jump without thinking, stop them. Also, because you can't always be looking over their shoulder, you can use times when they do leap without thinking (and things don't turn out so well) to ask them how they could have made a different choice in hindsight.

You can then teach your children to ask themselves several key questions. First, "Why do I want to do this?" You want your children to understand what motivates their decisions. The children I speak to usually know why they make decisions, at least after the deed is done, and they almost always know what the right (and wrong) decision is. One problem is that children are often faced with conflicting motivations. They may know that doing something is stupid, but they may feel peer pressure to do it anyway. Only a well-learned sense of what's right and wrong and clear consequences can prevent your children from going to the "dark side" of decision making too often.

The next question is: "What are my options?" Children often have several possible choices when confronted with a decision. For example, when faced with the possibility of stealing candy from a store with friends, children could a) take the candy, b) not take the candy but ignore the fact that their friends are stealing, or c) try to convince their friends that stealing is wrong. Knowing their options can help your children see clearly what their decisions might be and also will make it easier for them to connect their decisions with what is right.

Then your children need to ask, "What are the consequences of my actions?" (or in their language, "How much trouble will I get in?"). They need to judge the risks and rewards of their decisions in the short run and the long term. The challenge here is that children often underestimate the costs and overestimate the benefits of their decisions. If you set high expectations and enforce tough consequences with them, they may think twice before acting foolishly.

Lastly, perhaps the most important question children need to ask themselves is: "Is this decision in my best interests?" Understanding what is best in both the short and long term, having these concerns outweigh competing interests from popular culture and peer pressure, and making a decision based on their best interests is the culmination of the decision making process.

Coach Good Decision Making

You can help your children learn good decision making by coaching them through decisions. This guidance allows them to see how a decision is thought through and arrived at. During these discussions, you can help your children identify key contributors to the decision and take thoughtful steps to the decision. After the decision, you can help them judge how good the decision was and, if the decision turned out to be a poor one, why it was a bad decision and what they can learn from it. You can also present your children with hypothetical moral dilemmas, such as what to do when friends are teasing another child, that they are likely to face and engage them in a conversation about how they would make a decision. Of course, children won't always make such deliberate decisions, particularly when they're young, but if you coach them and give them experience with good decision making, they'll use it more as they gain maturity.

Finally, part of your children learning to make good decisions is allowing them to make poor ones. If handled properly, bad decisions can play a powerful role in your children becoming good decision makers. Yes, they should be held accountable for their decisions by providing them with consequences that are commensurate with their offenses. But children must also be required to explore their decisions, understand why they made a poor decision, and ensure that they "get it" so that they don't make the same bad decision again.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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