Is Raising Good Decision Makers Parents’ Greatest Challenge?

January 15th, 2013

By Dr. Jim Taylor

children_technologyGood decision making is one of the most powerful skills your children need to learn as they progress through childhood and transition into adulthood. But I promise you, it is not a skill that will develop readily on its own, particularly in the digital world in which they are growing up. You should teach your children why popular culture and technology can cause them to make poor decisions and guide them in learning how to make good decisions.

Making bad decisions. Whenever I speak to a group of young people, I ask how many of them have ever made a bad decision. With complete unanimity and considerable enthusiasm, they all raise their hands. When I then ask whether they will ever make a poor decision in the future, the response is equally fervent. I also ask children why they make less-than-stellar decisions. 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 the faulty decision was worth it, most usually say, “Not really.” What this means is that there was glitch in their decision-making “program,” somewhere between input, processing, and output, that caused the bad decision. Because children lack experience and perspective, and, as I noted above in my previous post, their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed, they tend to make decisions that are egocentric, rash, and short-sighted. This absence of forethought can cause children to not consider all available information, engage in an incomplete cost-benefit analysis, and ignore long-term consequences.

Let me make a bold statement: children should make poor decisions. Making ill-advised decisions and experiencing the consequences helps your children learn how to make better decisions. A problem arises, however, if their poor decision making continues. Because decision making is a skill, children can become very good at making ill-advised decisions; the more children do anything, good or bad, the better they get at it. The more skillful they become at making regrettable decisions, the more bad decisions they are likely to make in the future. Of course, the long-term personal, social, and professional implications of children growing up to be poor decision makers are profound, negative, and, I think, obvious, especially in our wired world where decisions can remain in cyberspace forever.

Learning to make good decisions. The process of making good decisions begins with educating your children about it. The first step, given that children are notorious for acting without thinking, is to teach them to stop before they leap. With a few seconds of hesitation, your children can prevent a lot of flawed 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 decision in hindsight.

The next step is to teach your children to think before they act. There are several important questions they should ask themselves. First, “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 a decision is bad, but they may, for example, 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. Because of the ubiquity of popular culture and the omnipresence of technology, forces that push them down the road of a poor decision have never been stronger.

Second, “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. If you’ve raised your children with healthy values, they know what the right decision is. At the same time, they still have to weigh what is right with how it will impact their relationship with their friends.

Third, “What are the consequences of my actions?” (or in their language, “How much trouble will I get into?”). Your children 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 (it’s actually a cognitive bias to which adults also fall prey). 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.

Fourth, a 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 their decision may be influencing. Teaching your children to ask this question can help them to step away from their egocentrism and increase their awareness of others. It can also help them to take others into consideration and make decisions that are 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 in the long run?” Discussions with your children about what is in their long-term best interests is a valuable means of sensitizing them to the conflicts that often arise between short-term gains and long-term benefits. Understanding what is in their best interests in the long run and having these concerns outweigh competing immediate 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. 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’re 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.

Raise 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. You can, however, 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. 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, you can expand the number of choices you give them. Then, you can 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, you should retain veto power when needed, but use it judiciously.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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2 Responses to “Is Raising Good Decision Makers Parents’ Greatest Challenge?”

  1. Jeanne |

    I have raised 3 daughters, all successful, not in the sense of how much money they make but they all are in jobs that give back to their community or mankind.
    I have to take issue with your giving kids choices about various pieces of candy.. kids, at a smaller age are not able to make good decisions about what kind of candy r whatever they want. I did that with my children rarely, my daughter does not give my Grandchildren any choice. Sugary drinks r candy is not an option.
    I think u underestimate the extent of peer pressure. And their ability to make good or right choices all the time. Recent research has found that children do not finish development at 18, as was thought previously, in fact development continues through age 25. After observing all 3 daughters I can see this is true.
    My youngest daughter was pretty much kept. at home. Drug and alcohol use was plentiful all through high school. When she asked to go to a party I asked her whether drugs or alcohol would be there. I taught all my daughters not ever and I mean ever to lie to me. She would always say yes. Then I said no. When she was a senior I allowed her to go to a party WITH a classmate who was going to be a nun and didn’t drink. She drank and vomited for days. Despite that experience when she went away to college evidently she conquered the vomiting part but was always cognizant of the no driving while drinking. For years I’d told my daughters horror stories from my days in trauma medicine. When we talked about college she mentioned extreme peer pressure. Even I had underestimated it during college.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Jeanne, sounds like you did a good job with your daughters. Making children good decision makers is undoubtedly a difficult process and something they won’t always enjoy. But it gives them a better opportunity to be successful in life, as opposed to those raised in overly permissive circumstances without a sense of true self-esteem and responsibility.

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