Teaching our kids to make decisions
Whenever I speak to a group of young people especially college graduates, I find 70% of them not happy with the decision of higher studies they have made, each one has a statement, I wish I had chosen…. Most of the adults I meet have said, wish life had given a second chance, I could have done better. I have tried asking my audience (adults) how many of them have ever done anything stupid. With complete unanimity and enthusiasm, they all raise their hands and when asked for reasons here’s what they tell me: I did not think twice; I did not take it seriously; peer pressure; parental pressure etc. Making decisions is a very crucial life skill but unfortunately teaching this life skill is very rarely included in our parenting or teaching agenda. Let’s accept we have different ideas about our children’s decision making. We want to make our children’s decision for them: What they eat, what they wear, what ice cream flavor they eat, what television show they watch, which video game they play and what music they listen to.
Adults end making rash, egocentric and short sighted decisions due to lack of experience and perspective which cannot be generated overnight and needs to be inculcated as a habit right from the childhood. I strongly believe 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, but 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.
Teaching 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 supermarket and tell them they can have anything they want; they would be overwhelmed by the choices. But you can give them a choice among any three things and they could then decide which treat they want. That way you will also be saved from their continuous habit of nagging for want of everything they see.
As your children get older, expand the number of choices you give them. Then, increase the importance of the decisions they can make (e.g. 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 the parent power when needed, but use it judiciously.
Decision making: Step by Step
Good decision-making is a complex process that takes years to master. This process begins with educating children 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 that 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. Your children should ask themselves, “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: “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 take the candy; not take the candy, but ignore the fact that their friends are stealing; or 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.
Another question that children can have a difficult time considering: “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 effecting. 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 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.
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.
(The author is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Learning Arena, an e-learning company)