Teaching wise decision-making begins during toddler hood. One of my daughters used the words good idea and bad idea when teaching her boys about decision-making. When one of them would start toward the TV or another off-limits object she would say, “Is that a good idea or a bad idea?” As one of the children would begin doing something he wasn’t supposed to, he would say, “Bad idea. Bad idea.” Even if she was not watching, she would hear the words and intervene.
Like other effective parenting practices, teaching wise decision-making takes time. There are steps that, when taken, give children the tools to use when making decisions on their own.
Before parents ever begin teaching children about making their own decisions they need to talk about what is or isn’t acceptable behavior, and why. For example, when babies begin to crawl they see bits of fluff or small things on the floor and often put them in their mouths. When a parent sees this, instead of just saying, “No, no” they might say, “No, no. I don’t want you to put that in your mouth because you could choke.” Even if the child is too young to understand what you mean, she begins to recognize there is a consequence to her behavior. Older children will not like hearing your reasons for not agreeing with their decisions. But usually they will listen and think about what you’ve said.
Words like good idea/bad idea, wise choice/poor choice work well. Using key words or code words keeps communication focused and short. Too often we as parents lecture or over-talk a situation. By using key words children begin to evaluate their choices and, if you’ve used Step 1 in your teaching, think of consequences.
When teaching school-age or older children to make decisions, brainstorm. Ask them to think of as many reasons as they can for making or not making a particular choice. In this exercise no monitoring is necessary. Coming up with off-the-wall ideas helps them narrow their choice to a reasonable one.
After a child has come up with a choice either for or against the issue she’s deciding about, talk about it with her. Acknowledge her for the thought she’s put into her decision. Give input as to why you agree or disagree with her choice, using an “I” message. You might say, “I agree with your decision because….” or “I can’t agree with your decision because….”Offer options she may not have considered. Above all, be compassionate. Children want to make good decisions. They don’t have the experience to always make the best ones. If they haven’t made a good choice guide them toward a better one without judging their ability.
Once a child has made her decision let her try it out unless it is harmful to herself or another. She will experience the consequences of her choice, and that will help her decision-making process in the future.
When the outcome of her choice is positive, rejoice with her and let her know that you are pleased that her decision was a good one. If the consequences aren’t as positive as she had hoped, be understanding. Help her analyze what didn’t work and how she might decide differently in the future.
Regardless of how decisions turn out children need to know that you appreciate their efforts. If, in the beginning, you knew that the decision was not the best (remember Step 4), don’t rub it in. Let her know that you are there for her and will be as she makes future decisions.
Children, especially older ones and teens, will make many decisions on their own. Sometimes they turn out well; sometimes they don’t. This is all part of the maturation process. Do the best you can with assisting your children to learn the process of effective decision-making. Then be there to support as they experience the ups and downs of growing up.