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Teaching Kids to Make Decisions

How can we teach our kids to make decisions?

We are constantly making decisions. From the second you wake up and choose to hit the snooze button to the minute before deciding to turn off the lights for bed, you would have made approximately 35,000 decisions. Now, for those who have a child, let's double that number. And if you have more than one child? Keep adding it up. We are continuously making choices every day of our lives. Some decisions require no effort, while others take more time and thought, but needless to say, decision making is a life skill.

And with all life skills, we, as parents, try our best to instill some guidance and advice on our children. Teaching our children to make smart decisions is on the top of our list of things to do for our kids, but how do we begin?

Deciding to teach your child about making decisions is a great decision you’ve made, so to help you begin, try the following strategies:

Strategy #1: Give your child a choice.

Help your child learn to make decisions by offering them simple choices. Start them at a young age. At breakfast, ask them whether they want jam or peanut butter, or both, on their toast. Offer them a choice of what they want to wear to they want to wear their pink t-shirt or the green one? When out for a meal, have your child choose their order from the kid’s menu. Kids’ menus are great because they provide limited options to reduce overwhelm.

kid's closet with different coloured t-shirts

Having young children make simple decisions not only builds their independence, but allows them to have a sense of ownership and responsibility. Do keep in mind that we need to still set boundaries and ultimately make the final decision. After all, they can’t just order an ice cream sundae for dinner! Be patient and let them choose. When we introduce the concept of choice and options at a young age, it helps pave the path to making more complex decisions as they get older.

Strategy #2: Involve your child in the process.

Oftentimes, it is quicker to just do things for your child. This is true, especially in the mornings, where it is easier to have your child’s lunch packed and to have things done and ready. Doing this speeds up the process, but it doesn't help your child foster their sense of voice and decision making experience. When tasks are already complete and they only see the end product, they don't see how an action is created and the process involved in reaching the decisions. This faulty sense distorts their thinking, and they will struggle when it comes to their own decision making time.

It’s perfectly reasonable to plan out and have things done for your child. We all know that the last thing parents want to do during the morning rush is to ask their child what they would like for lunch and then prepare it. However, it’s important to explain how that plan and decision came about. Try walking them through the decision making process and have them join you in lunch planning the night

before. Or, instead of going on your own to buy a birthday gift, go shopping together or at least have your child give input on what gift to purchase. Whenever possible, make an effort to involve them in the process.

girl shopping for a gift

Strategy #3: Think out loud.

Your child looks up to you and mimics your actions and behaviours. Take the opportunity to show them how you make your decisions. Discuss why and how you reach the verdict. Instead of just responding "no" to your child's request, explain that you decided to not allow your child to go to her friend's house because you feel that with her busy weekend schedule, she won’t have enough time to work on her science presentation. And that perhaps next weekend will be a better time because her science presentation would have been handed in by then. When your child sees and hears how you rationally make decisions, they will have a better sense of the process (and understand why you said “no”.) There's a bonus to this strategy as well. It fosters a sense of communication between you and your child, and sets up an open and safe environment for your child and you to discuss and have deeper conversations.

words pause, breathe, ponder, choose

Strategy #4: Be there to listen.

When you and your child establish a safe and welcoming environment for conversations, your child can confide in you when they have bigger decisions to make. Be there as you listen to their thought process. Sit with them and create a pros and cons list to the options and have them make the final decision. Instead of telling them what to choose, be the moderator and guide them to make the ultimate decision. Be there to listen and support their decisions. When your child needs to do course planning and decide which courses to take in high school, have them list out what they like or don’t like about the course, and consider how the course will help them in their future. This will make a great precursor to the bigger and more complex decisions they make when they become high school seniors and need to start thinking about their college and post-secondary plans.

high school grads with graduation caps

Strategy #5: Step back and let them fail.

This is by far the most difficult for parents to do. It is important to let your child experience consequences to poor choices they make as long as it is safe for them to experience the fault. Try to let go and let your child face the repercussions of their decisions. Let them spend their birthday money and choose a poor quality toy so that it breaks on them. As parents, our job is to protect our kids, but if we always try to save them, or shield them from their bad choices, we are doing more harm than good. Don’t wait with this strategy. Use this strategy with younger children and pre-teens. It's much easier to let your child face the consequence of choosing play over studying for a test and receiving a poor mark when they are in elementary or middle school rather than in their senior years in high school. Through trial and error, your child learns to frame judgement on their decisions and learn to make rational and “wiser” decisions the next time around.

words learn from failure

Every child is different. Some strategies will work well with some while not with others. Your child’s age and maturity level determine which approach to take. You know your child best and you will know which strategy to try. Instilling positive habits about making choices is part of building the growth mindset and paves the way for analytical thinking. Parents have so much influence on their children, so let’s try our best to mirror our decision making process so that they can learn to effectively make their own decisions. Let’s pivot their decisions back to them so that we only have to deal with our own 35,000 decisions a day.

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