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Helping Kids Become Good Decision-Makers

Why we need to prepare kids to make their own choices.

Key points

  • Our priority as our kids get older should be helping them develop the skills they need to keep themselves safe.
  • It’s by competently handling stressful situations that young people develop the confidence that they can do so.
  • The belief that we can handle, or recover from, tough situations provides us the courage to step out of our comfort zones.

After a recent lecture, parents of a recently graduated high-school senior asked us whether they should let their daughter go with friends to a “Beach Week,” a week-long adventure in the sun before college for graduated high-school seniors, with no parents within miles. The possible perils send shivers of fear down parental spines—about liability, safety, and what is likely to be significant alcohol consumption and some drug use.

We share the parents’ concerns. After all, alcohol (especially binge drinking) is horrible for the developing brain, and alcohol is a big part of the point of Beach Week. However, in our view, it was a no-brainer. If she thinks it’s safe, feels confident that she can handle it, and knows that she can call her parents if she needs them, of course they should let her go.

We say this, in part, because in two and a half months, she will be going off to college, where her parents will have virtually no say in what she does and whom she does it with—even if they try to monitor her every move with Life 360 or a similar tracking device. And, compared to the risks of Beach Week, the risks of college are enormous. In college, the temptations to drink and use drugs will still be present, along with academic and social stresses and a highly inconsistent sleep schedule, all of which contribute to what, over the last decade (and long before the pandemic), has been called a mental health crisis on college campuses.

Being Ready for Independence in College

The risks that students encounter in college are particularly challenging for kids who’ve had little previous experience making decisions and running their own lives, many of whom are simply not ready to handle college independently.

Three years ago, in a lecture to parents at a school in Houston, we happened to mention one of the most elite high schools in the Greater Washington, D.C., area. After the lecture, a woman introduced herself to us as a therapist at The Menninger Clinic, an excellent mental health facility in Houston. She explained that she and her colleagues knew this high school well because many of its graduates get into the most elite colleges but can’t handle college life emotionally—and so take a medical leave of absence and come to the Menninger Clinic for treatment. She went on to say that all of these students had had insufficient experience making decisions for themselves, handling setbacks, and managing life’s temptations independently.

So, while our impulse is to try keep our kids safe, our priority as they get older should shift to helping them develop the skills—including the decision-making skills—they need to keep themselves safe, along with the confidence that they can trust their own judgment and solve problems as they arise. In our view, the time to start supporting kids in making their own decisions isn’t when we send them to college—it’s when they’re young—because we want them to have a ton of practice making and learning from their own decisions well before Beach Week arrives.

For kids going off to college (or leaving home for whatever reason), the most important thing they can take with them, besides confidence that we love, trust, and support them, is a healthy sense of autonomy—or control over their own lives. Extensive research has shown that this sense of control is crucial for healthy self-motivation and for emotional development more generally, and especially for developing high stress tolerance—or the ability to handle stressful situations competently and confidently. And it’s by competently handling stressful situations that young people develop the confidence that they can do so. It’s also the belief that we can handle, or recover from, tough situations that provides us the courage to step out of our comfort zones, academically, personally, and emotionally.

"It's Your Call"

For these reasons, we recommend that, whenever they can, parents say “It’s your call,” as long as kids are willing to make informed decisions—meaning decisions that are informed by discussing pros and cons with people who have more knowledge and/or experience than they do. Our motto is, “Go with the kid’s decision unless it’s crazy,” meaning that any reasonable person would think it’s a terrible idea. Besides, how often do we look back on what we thought were bad decisions only to see that they led to something good? We want kids to have that experience, and the more of those experiences they can have before they head off to college, the better prepared the both of you will be.

This isn’t easy, in part because we have to resist the urge to say “no” reflexively, which we recommend parents practice doing. Research has shown that simply hearing the word “no” can trigger a cascade of stress hormones in the brain (of both kids and adults), which shuts down any chance of effective communication, negotiation, or problem-solving. And, in our experience, when they aren’t told “no” automatically, kids are almost always open to feedback and suggestions. (It turns out that kids are commonly ambivalent about things—and might even share some of our concerns or reservations about Beach Week). They are also open to brainstorming with more experienced people about how to handle situations if things do go wrong, the really important know-how our kids need.

When Ned's son Matthew was a sophomore in high school, he asked his parents about going to a party, where he acknowledged there would likely be alcohol. Responding "Alcohol?!? No way you're going to that party!" would surely have kept Matthew safe from danger and temptation in the short term, but it would have shut down any discussion about important topics. Instead, the conversation evolved into "what to do" if alcohol were served, a situation he would surely face at some point. Without hearing an automatic "no," Matthew was open to his parents' input, and his parents' respect surely reduced any urge Matthew may have had to use teenage cunning to avoid attempts at parental control.

Matthew went on to share a story he had heard of a party where a girl had gotten so drunk that someone called 911. Approaching sirens sent the partygoers scattering, except for one Good Samaritan who stayed to help. The story was told among his friends as a cautionary tale of “Don’t be there if things go wrong” because the teen who helped was issued a $500 citation. “There is another way to look at that,” Ned offered: “Perhaps that kid paid $500 to save the life of someone else’s kid.” While our first instinct is to keep our kids safe, open conversation provides opportunities to teach them how to keep themselves safe.

Messages to Avoid

We also suggest that parents consider the potential downside of simply saying “no” or otherwise overruling a child’s—and especially a teen’s—decision. We want parents to be cautious about giving kids messages like these:

  • Don’t trust your own judgment. I know better than you do what’s right for you.
  • Your opinion doesn’t matter.
  • You really can’t be safe without me.
  • I don’t have confidence that you’ll obey laws or show common sense.
  • If something bad happens, you can’t handle it.
  • The people and places you choose to be around aren’t safe.
  • Your friends are threats to your safety.

So, we want to say “yes” whenever we can. If we aren’t sure, we can say, “At this point, when I think about the pros and cons, I think it’s a tough call. It could go either way.” We can add, “Truthfully, nobody knows what the right thing to do is in this situation better than you do, because nobody knows the kind of life you want.”

Ultimately, we can’t keep our kids safe. In our experience, talking with them about the limits of our ability to protect them helps kids think clearly about what they need to do to keep themselves safe. Especially as our kids are walking out the door into the world, we cannot reasonably exert power over them. But we can (and should) aim to have influence. We earn that by treating kids respectfully and expressing confidence in their ability to make good decisions for themselves—with the help of people who are older and, hopefully, wiser. And, if all goes right in the world, we will know our children much longer as adults than we knew them as children, and we’ll be able to see the effects of our positive influence for many years to come.

More from William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson
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