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The Importance of Learning How to Make Decisions

The basics of mastering an essential life skill.

Making choices and decisions is a part of life. Simply put, the way life unfolds—with its twists and turns, starts and stops—requires us to make choices and decisions every step of the way. So, I find it fascinating and somewhat baffling that by the time young people have reached adulthood, many have not mastered the art of decision-making. In fact, many people dread change because this means they will have to contemplate something different from what they’re used to and maybe even be required to make change.

Why is this so? Well, there may be many reasons, many factors that determine why some people can just dive into life and do what is required with enthusiasm and excitement while others are paralyzed at the thought of having to step up to anything that might require taking action. A person’s temperament, disposition or nature may contribute to the way they view life. Some people are fearless, enjoying risk and adventure, while others are fearful of making change and making mistakes, preferring to stay close to what is familiar and not wandering too far—and that includes their choices and decisions.

Some people have been burned in the past by poor choices and decisions and are afraid to, once again, risk making a bad choice or decision. So they may do nothing hoping the change will work itself out, or go away, or that somebody else will take care of what needs to be done.

Then there’s the issue of children never learning to make decisions because they’ve never been taught how to do it; many of the important choices have been made for them and they may simply have no say in the matter. That may be the fault of parents who try to control too much of their children’s lives fearing that they will miss out on what they, the parents, deem to be important unless they, the parents, jump in to ensure the “proper” course for their children.

The bottom line is that decision-making is something we all need to learn how to do. This very essential life skill should be taught from very early on since decision-making takes years of practice to master. Learning how to make good choices and wise decisions depends upon several factors: a person’s developmental stage/age, having a general idea of right and wrong (and I mean this in the broadest moral sense since individual’s may acquire their own idea of what is right and wrong for them personally as they mature), understanding what the decision-making process entails, and practice!

You may think starting with infants is just too young but that’s not the case.

It’s good practice to reinforce behavior that is unacceptable or potentially harmful. For example, when a baby begins to crawl, finds small objects or dirt on the floor and mouths it, it’s appropriate not only to remove the object but to say "no” and tell the baby why putting this object in their mouth isn’t OK. Even though a baby may not initially understand what you’re saying, by hearing it over and over again they’ll start to make the connection and understand that all behaviors have consequences—some good, some bad.

Toddlers need to be given controlled options. For example, offer the child a choice between two things only. “Do you want cereal or eggs; milk or juice?” “Do you want to wear the green shirt with these blue pants or this dress with leggings?” This allows the youngster to have a voice in making choices that fit into your choices and routine.

Offer choices/options that are reasonable and readily available to young children.

  • Tasks should not be out of their range developmentally. For example, create small jobs that allow your youngster to work beside you, such as dusting the furniture, adding an ingredient or two to a recipe, choosing food at the supermarket, etc.
  • When the child moves into the stage of “I can do it myself,” let them try, with your observation and supervision.
  • Foster responsibility by allowing the child to do some chores/jobs on their own; for example picking up their toys, feeding the family pet, etc.
  • Break down tasks into smaller pieces or steps, showing children that there is an order to how things are accomplished.
  • Encourage, especially when a child is frustrated or loses patience.
  • Offer praise; get excited for a job well-done, especially when it is the accomplishment of a brand new skill such as dressing themselves, riding a bike, or staying dry through the night.
  • For pre-schoolers, expand the number of choices. As a child gets older, their capacity to understand the nuanced difference between right and wrong increases as well as their ability to understand the consequences of their behavior.
  • Frame choices using key words that are simple to understand, such as “Do you think this is a good idea/decision/choice, or maybe not the best?’’ Do you have a better idea, or want to make a different decision/choice?’
  • Ask questions to help the child understand various possibilities: “What do you think will happen if you decide to do ____?” “How will you feel if you do ____?” If doing something involves someone else, such as a friend or a sib, you can ask the child, “How do you think they will feel as a result of a choice you make?”
  • Include your child’s ideas or opinions when it comes to making family decisions. The child will feel heard, their opinion will be appreciated, and their confidence to express themselves will be nurtured. They will also begin to understand that there is a process involved in decision-making.

For school-age children, expand the choices you give them and the importance of the decisions they choose to make. This includes their activities, their friends, school curriculum and educational obligation, and personal choices such as when to go to sleep, style of clothing to buy, pursuit of personal interests such as music, movies, books, and pursuit of special talents and creative abilities such as sports and art. Of course, you as the adult may still make a lot of the important decisions regarding children, but it’s essential to give them the chance to learn for themselves.

Teach the decision-making process.

  • Define the issue. Include the need/reason for the decision.
  • Brainstorm for possible options and/or solutions.
  • Discuss the options, and their potential consequences, and then narrow down to no more than three choices.
  • Pick one of the three choices, formulate an action plan, and follow through.
  • Evaluate the solution. If the solution is satisfactory, your child will have a sense of accomplishment. If not satisfactory, or it falls short of expectation, or is just a bad idea, reconsider other choices/possibilities that may bring a better outcome.

Be available to your child to talk about issues or problems arising from a decision, and to encourage and lend support, especially in light of a poor decision. Making some bad decisions is part of the maturation process.

Teens and young adults should be encouraged to expand their choices and decisions. Recognize that adolescents want to have more control over their lives. They want more independence, more time with friends, and more fun. Encourage your young adult to independently practice decision-making skills whenever possible, with you watching on the sideline. When you single-handedly continue to make choices and decisions important to your child, you undermine his/her self-esteem and confidence.

No one is expected to get things right all of the time. We often don’t. But, having some idea of what to do will help to make the big choices and decisions easier. Good decision-making is one of the most important life skills to own.