Decision-making for kids

Are they ready?

Imagine if your child made all the household decisions. You may end up with ice cream for breakfast, a house full of puppies, non-stop screen time, and utter chaos. Kids aren’t ready to make all the household decisions. And we know it is often faster and easier to make the decisions ourselves.

Why teach kids decision making?

Yet children do need to learn how to make decisions. At some point, they will have to make major life choices, and we want them to be ready to do this. It is good for children to have some measure of influence in the decisions that impact their lives. This influence gives them a feeling of control and independence. Children who feel they have some control and independence:

  • Get better grades
  • Are more persistent at learning and building skills (both in school and in sports)
  • Are more productive,
  • And have higher levels of wellbeing.

This also makes sense. Don’t you feel better when you feel you have some control over your situation?

Some vs too much choice

‘Some measure’ of choice and control is not total decision-making power. In fact, too much choice can be a bad thing. When we have too many options, we can become overwhelmed trying to figure out the ‘best’ choice. We are then often less satisfied with the decision, still wondering if it was best. Deciding on the best option can be a form of perfectionism and lead to unhappiness.

With our kids, there are two easy methods to prevent them from feeling overwhelming. The first is to limit their choices. For example, you could ask, “Do you want an apple or a banana?” instead of “What kind of fruit do you want?” The second method is to teach them how to make criteria for their decision-making. You will read more about this method later in the week.

Four reasons to practice decision-making

If we can just limit their choices, then why practice decision-making at all with kids? Here are four reasons.

1 – Executive function

Decision-making is an executive function in the brain. It is not fully developed until your child is in his or her 20’s. This means it will take a lot of practice and repetition.

2 – Consequences

The consequences of your child’s decisions are likely less serious now than they would be later on in life. Imagine it’s a rainy summer day and your child wants to go ride her bike. You don’t want her to go, but she is insistent and is bouncing off the walls. You decide a little rain is fine, and anyways she has too much energy. So you tell her to be careful because it’s going to be slippery outside. Your child is having a blast flying through the puddles, spraying water, and ignores (or forgets) your warning. She is having a ton of fun until she tries to make a sharp turn and the bicycle skids out and she falls. She may end the day with scrapes and bruises or even a broken bone. That’s why you didn’t want her riding in the rain. But her choice to take a risk is better to try out on bicycle than in a car. Yes, scraped knees and broken arms are horrible, but the same mistake in a car can be deadly. We don’t want them to get hurt, but we do want them to learn. This is why early learning is preferable.

3 – Emotional literacy

Our choices are always based on emotions. Even when we try to be logical, emotions have a role. Case studies of people who have lost their ability to feel (and other research) have proven this. When you need to make a decision, the area of the brain that processes emotion lights up first. Next the area that does analysis and decision making lights up. That is important because we are terrible at guessing how an emotional event will impact us. Most of us would rather win the lottery than lose the use of our legs. But studies show that a year after the event, a person who won the lottery and a person who has become a paraplegic are equally happy with their lives. Since emotions play such a big role in decision-making, it is important to help our kids understand and process them.

4 – Growing from poor choices

We have all made bad decisions at some point in our lives. There is a lot to gain from these bad choices, especially if we take the time to learn from them. Bad decisions also teach us that we survive our mistakes. If we make all of the decisions for our children, we rob them of valuable life experience.

Designing situations to let our children practice decision-making helps them learn:

  • Sometimes there is no ‘best’ choice,
  • Decisions have consequences,
  • To recognize the role their emotions play in their choices,
  • And they can survive a poor choice.

These experiences will increase your child’s belief that they can make good decisions. Their confidence in themselves as smart and capable kids will grow accordingly. Three cheers for this!

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