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Raising Good Decision Makers: Helping Kids Learn to Make Decisions

Published on: September 28, 2011

Teaching kids the skill of decision makingToy stores always made me crazy — the noise, the (primary!) colors, the sheer pandemonium.

Then there were my children. My daughter always knew just what to buy with her spending money. One day a game, another time a puzzle, and on occasion, a fluffy stuffed animal. My son? Thoughtful, analytical, an astute observer of people and places — and utterly unable to choose between the truck and the Legos. We’d often leave the store in tears (him) and sheer frustration (me) and with a sadly empty shopping bag.

OK, you’re thinking, so he can’t make a decision. Big deal.

Well, yes, big deal. Learning to be a decision maker is a lifelong skill that, according to Bellevue College parenting coach Jennifer Watanabe, can’t begin too early. “We are presented with choices every part of every day,” says Watanabe. “Am I going to get up now or in five minutes? Should I have breakfast or work out?”

As kids mature, so do their options. Soon it’s not the vanilla or strawberry ice cream they’re considering, but which classmates to befriend, which courses to take and whether they should down that shot of tequila.

“Decision making is crucial because the decisions your children make dictate the path that their lives take,” writes psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “They need to judge the risks and rewards of their decisions in the short run and the long term.”

They also need to hone their decision-making skills when the stakes are reasonably low. The red dress or the pink one? The crayons or the paints? World peace won’t be resting on these dilemmas any time soon. “Childhood is the time when it’s safe to make choices, to try on personas and even make mistakes,” says Shannon Price, a family therapist at Seattle Full Circle Counseling. “When we get to do this early, we get to know ourselves better.”

‘Maximizers’ & ‘satisficers’

Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor who wrote the book The Paradox of Choice, is an expert in the science of decision making. He talks about “maximizers” — people who strive to always make the best decision and carefully scrutinize every possible option, and “satisficers” —those who don’t need to investigate each alternative and are happy with “good enough.”

Since there are always more — sometimes infinite — options, since it takes huge blocks of time to constantly chase after the “best,” and since there’s probably something even better coming around the bend, Schwartz roots for the satisficers. They’re just happier, he contends.

He thinks kids should be satisficers, too. “The single most important thing parents can do is cultivate in their kids that ‘good enough’ is almost always good enough,” he says. He knows that concept doesn’t come easily for most parents. As he says, “I’ve never heard a parent say, ‘I only want the good enough for my kids.’”

We all know maximizer parents — maybe you’re one of them. They can’t buy a stroller without looking at every single one (umbrella? Jogging? Ultralight?). Heck, they won’t choose a diaper bag without examining every diaper bag in the universe, and they certainly won’t select a piano teacher before vetting piano teachers everywhere, even if that means driving their child 10 miles away for lessons. (OK, that was me.)

“If you model ‘only the best will do,’ you teach your child the same lesson,” says Schwartz. “Kids learn more by watching how their parents act than by listening to what they say.”

Helping your child learn to make decisionsRaising decision makers

So how can we help our kids learn to be good decision makers? Maybe even better decision makers than we are?

We can start by making sure our expectations for them are developmentally appropriate, says Susan Ruby, an Edmonds mental health counselor. “Let’s say you’re taking your 4-year-old into Target,” says Ruby. “He gets quickly overwhelmed and distracted. You ask him to make a decision about a toy, and he has a meltdown.”

That’s because kids don’t always do well in busy, chaotic surroundings, she says. And they certainly can’t be expected to make reasoned, thoughtful decisions amid the fracas and the frenzy. “They’re exposed to stimuli they aren’t used to and can’t process,” says Ruby.

Along with thinking about settings and surroundings, Ruby suggests parents evaluate their own approach — verbal and physical — when asking their kids to make a decision. “Get down to their level,” Ruby says. “Sit at the table, make sure your presentation is nonreactive, and be calm, friendly and engaging.”

Too much eye contact can be stressful for a child, she says. “Kids have a hard time engaging with you and making a decision at the same time. They can’t do both.”

Kids learn how to make decisions by making lots of them, says Schwartz. Parents can keep those choices manageable by limiting the selection. “Too many options exceed what a 5- or 6-year-old can handle,” he says. ‘”What do you want for lunch?’ can turn into an hour-long conversation. They end up making choices for the wrong reasons.”

For instance, don’t cart your first-grader to the store to pick out school clothes unless you narrow the items down to two or three, he says. “Otherwise, she’ll either make no decision or choose whatever leaps out at her. And that will probably be whatever’s glitziest.”

But for the littlest kids, choices — even a small list of them — can be challenging. Asking a 3-year-old, “Would you like the hot dog or the grilled cheese?” is not as simple as it sounds.

“Very young kids are building a language base,” says Ruby. “They have to figure out what word is appropriate at the same time they are deciding what to eat.”

In other words, they’re figuring out what Mom is saying and how to best respond. “They also know they need to say it politely so Mommy won’t get mad. And if Mom is upset, the child is busy processing the nonverbal data first.”

Tolerating trade-offs

What if your child makes the wrong decision? What if he picked the blue sweater and now wants green? “There is no perfect anything,” says Schwartz. “The goal is learning how to accept trade-offs. Figuring out what was good about your choice is a huge component of learning how to make decisions and be satisfied with them.”

Schwartz says parents should offer their kids a variety of decision-making opportunities as they’re growing up. “Let them learn by trial and error and experience the consequences.”

Seattle mom Carrie Lucas Yandell thinks she gave her son “too much leeway with decisions” when he was younger. Now, he’s not much of a decision maker, she says. He typically vacillates, then regrets his final choice.

“All choices have consequences, and we learn from the decisions we make,” says Price. “We are parenting these kids for the future people they are going to become.”

If we give in each time our kids change their minds, we’re letting them “run the show” and undermining their ability to make decisions, she says. “That makes kids feel less safe, because they’re the ones in control — and that’s scary for a kid.”

But every once in a while, it’s OK to back down, experts say. If, for instance, your second-grader chose a backpack her peers find “babyish,” who would fault you for not insisting she plow (miserably) through the year with Dora or Hello Kitty?

Price would suggest preempting the problem altogether by finding out — with your child — what’s new and cool before buying it. “If you constantly bail your kids out, they’ll push you harder the next time,” she says.

And if they’re angry or disappointed with a decision they’ve made or just can’t seem to make one at all, help them label their feelings. “Say, ‘It sounds like you are frustrated,’” says Price. “This is how they get to know their emotional intelligence.”

Or use Emily Robinson Goldstein’s technique: “After they’ve had a certain amount of time to decide for themselves, I say, ‘I’m counting to 20; when I’m done counting, if you haven’t made a decision, I’ll point to one and that will have to be your choice,’” writes Goldstein in a Facebook post. “It’s rare that I actually get to 20.”

Linda Morgan is managing editor of ParentMap and author of the book Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential. She offers parenting advice regularly on KING-5 TV’s Parent to Parent program.

6 tips for helping kids learn to make decisions

1. Modeling is everything. When you’re buying a car, think out loud. Let your kids hear how you process and what goes into making a decision.

2. Once in a while, sit down and work through a decision with your child. Let’s say she’s having a party. How does she decide whom to invite? Where to have it?

3. Go through situations and teach your children what to consider, what’s important and what kinds of factors come into play when making a decision.

4. Sometimes, you can’t give them choices. For example, let’s say you’re at the park and it’s time to go home. They still have a decision to make: They can be happy or sad.

5. The more decisions you can let your child make, the better. But remember, there is a place for “no.”

6. Healthy decision making requires parents to know they are the ones in power. They provide the structure, and their kids will learn better skills in the long run.

Source: Shannon Price, family therapist at Seattle Full Circle Counseling

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