One of the most powerful ways you can encourage your children to become successful, happy, and contributing people is to teach them good decision making and then to allow them to make their own decisions. The decisions that your children make as they approach adulthood dictate the people they become and the life paths they choose.
Unfortunately, popular culture has different ideas about your children’s decision making. Popular culture wants to make your children’s decisions for them; what they wear, what they eat and drink, what television and movies they watch, what video games they play, and what music they listen to.
Making bad decisions
Whenever I speak to a group of young people, I ask how many of them have ever done anything stupid. With complete unanimity and considerable enthusiasm, they all raise their hands. When I then ask whether they 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:
- 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.
Yet when I ask them if it was usually worth doing that stupid thing, most say, “Not really.” Because children lack experience and perspective, they tend to make decisions that are rash, egocentric, and short-sighted. This absence of forethought can cause children to overlook the consequences of their decisions and to ignore their long-term ramifications.
Children should do stupid things. Making poor decisions and experiencing the consequences helps your children learn how to make better decisions in the future. A problem arises, however, if their poor decision making continues. Because decision making is a skill, children can become very good at making bad decisions. This usually occurs when parents don’t hold them responsible for their poor decisions, instead, bailing them out of the trouble their bad decision brings. These children learn that they aren’t responsible for their decisions and can continue to do stupid things without fear of consequences. The long-term personal, social, and professional implications of children growing up to be poor decision makers are profound, negative, and, I think, obvious.
Raising good decision makers
Ceding decision making to your children is an incremental process based on their age, maturity, and, decision-making history. It would be downright dangerous to give children complete latitude in their decision making. But you can begin to teach decision making with very young children. For example, you shouldn’t take your children into a convenience store and tell them they can have anything they want; they would be overwhelmed by the choices. But you can 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, expand the number of choices you give them. Then, increase the importance of the decisions they can make, for example, what activities they choose to participate in or when they decide to go to bed. With each decision, they should recognize and take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Also, retain veto power when needed, but use it judiciously.
Learning to make good decisions
Good decision making is a complex process that takes years to master. This process begins with educating them about decision making. Children are notorious for making snap judgments and acting on them without thinking. The first step is to teach them to stop before they leap. With a few seconds of hesitation, your children can prevent a lot of bad decisions from being made. Help your children by “catching them in the act,” meaning when you see them about to jump without thinking, stop them and guide them through the decision-making process. Also, because you can’t always be looking over their shoulder, use times when they do leap without thinking (and things don’t turn out that well) to ask them how they could have made a different choice in hindsight.
The next step is for your children to think before they act. There are several important questions they should ask themselves. Your children should ask, “Why do I want to do this?” You want your children to understand what motivates their decisions. 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. Except for the most mature children, if decisions come down to doing what is right or what is popular, the majority of children will almost always choose the latter.
The next question they should ask is: “What are my options?” Children often have several possible choices when put in any given situation. 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.
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. The problem is that children often underestimate the costs and overestimate the benefits of their decisions. How your children answer this question will depend on the expectations and consequences you establish for them. If you instill the wrath of God in your children, they’re going to weigh them more heavily in their decisions.
Another question that children can have a difficult time considering is, “How will my decision affect others?” Because of their natural egocentricity when they’re young, children may not even think about who else they might be affecting. Teaching them to ask this question can help them make decisions that are most beneficial to both themselves and others.
Finally, perhaps the most important question children need to ask themselves is: “Is this decision in my best interests?” Understanding what is in their best interests and having these concerns outweigh competing interests is the culmination of the decision-making process. A useful tool to help encourage your children to make good decisions is to post the questions I raised above in a noticeable place in your home, such as on your refrigerator.
Coaching good decision making
You can help your children learn good decision making by coaching them through decisions. Help your children answer the key questions I offered above and take thoughtful steps to the decision. After the decision, help them judge how good the decision was and, if the decision turned out to be a poor one, what they can learn from it in the future. You can also present your children with hypothetical situations, such as a moral dilemma about lying to a friend, 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.