Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thought: Learning How to Make Decisions is Like Learning a Language

Learning how to think about choices and make decisions is also a lot like learning to play a musical instrument, like learning how to do woodworking or how to ride a bicycle. The common connection with all of these is that we don't learn them primarily by having someone lecture us or tell us about them. We learn decision making skills by actually doing the messy work of making decisions...and then by enjoying, or coping with the results.

Mark Twain wisely said, "Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions."

It can be hard for us to let our kids have experiences that result from us supporting their developmentally appropriate decision making. We badly want our kids to do well. This can be a very tough world. We have tons more experience than our kids do. It is hard not to want to jump in and do the decision making for them so we can ensure that it gets done right.

The trick is to find things that our kids can handle making decisions about on their own and can handle living with the consequences of. We, of course, can't in good conscience give kids decisions about whether or not to go to school or whether to have vegetables or Skittles as a side dish. An appropriate decision for a four year old might be, "Would you like to wear your coat or carry it?" For a teen it could be "Would it better for you to have your chores done by Wednesday night or by Friday night each week? For all kids above four years old, it can be about how they spend their weekly allowance. Allowance is a wonderful teacher about decision making. You can see how this concept overlaps nicely with shared control.

Another important piece is how we respond when they've gotten themselves into a problem with a decision they've made. Here we can link back to a previous idea. This is a great time for us to show some empathy. The bigger the problem, the more important that our empathy has some depth. A big help here is reminding ourselves that even though the better decision looked like a no-brainer to us, our kids have at least a couple decades less of life experience. Also they are different people with their own profiles of strengths and challenges. So things that might have been easy for us to decide when we were our kids' age might be tougher for them.

Give it a try. Make sure to begin with choices that are going to be easier for you to let your child live with. If we give them the power to make the decision, and then swoop in and rescue them, we send a powerful message that we don't believe that they are capable. And these unstated messages have a way of being far more persuasive than the ones we say directly. The good news is that whenever we are able to provide empathy and support to help them cope with the results of their decision, we send an equally powerful message that they are the sort of kids who can handle making decisions and who can learn from their mistakes. That is one of the irreplaceable gifts that we can give to our kids.
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