Helping Children Make (and live with) Decisions
Helping Children Learn to Make Decisions
Have you ever struggled while helping your child make a decision, or observed how decision-making can be difficult for children?
Consider the following scenario:
Parent: What would you like for lunch? Chicken? Macaroni and Cheese? Peanut Butter and Jelly?
Child: Mac and Cheese!
*Parent makes mac and cheese and delivers it to child*
Child: GROSS! I hate Mac and Cheese.
Sound familiar? If so, the answer to the question above is yes - you have experienced how complicated the decision-making process (and the experience of living with a made decision) can be for children.
Decision-making is a skill that is developed over time. With support and help from adults and parents, we can guide children in developing this skill, just as we do other developmental stages. When we give young children the opportunity to make simple decisions, we are helping to prepare them for the complicated task of making difficult decisions throughout their lives.
Below are some tips and considerations to help children learn the skill of decision-making:
1). Be clear about options. It is important for children to understand what their options are when making a decision. We often ask a child to make a choice and assume that they are implicitly aware of the options they have (and the limits of those options). It is important to discuss the options available to a child when asking them to make a decision, and to also be clear about options that are not on the table. Doing this will help children make an appropriate choice, and is an important first step in collaborating and teaching kids how to make decisions.
2). Present the choices in a developmental way. With very young children, it can be helpful to limit the number of choices a child has. Instead of asking ‘what do you want for breakfast?’ you might ask ‘would you like pancakes, waffles, or eggs for breakfast?’ Offering two choices of outfits in the morning is generally a more helpful way of giving a child some control over a choice, while also helping them narrow options to reasonable and appropriate choices.
I recently asked my 4-year-old daughter what she wanted to be for Halloween and opened up a website where we clicked through various costume options. With each fun costume, my daughter exclaimed, “I want that one!” I quickly realized that while it might be appropriate for me to peruse a website to choose options, this is not a developmental task for a child her age. Four-year old’s have an immediacy bias, and it is normal for them to want whatever they see in the moment when making a choice. Asking her to hold the information from the previous 10 or 15 choices in her mind while I moved to the next exciting picture was a set-up that wasn’t going to end in a helpful (or careful) decision. The next day, I printed out pictures of six costumes on six separate pieces of paper. This gave her limits around her choices (see tip one), and also presented her options in a way that was developmentally appropriate (she could hold each paper and look at the options at the same time).
3). Help children consider options. When we make decisions as adults, we often weigh our options carefully, consider pros and cons, and think through our decisions (on a good day). This type of critical thinking is not a skill that most children naturally possess, but it is one that can be taught. Parents should take the time to discuss options with children, so they can practice (with you) the process of making decisions. Help children weigh options and consider the good points and the bad. Teaching children this valuable skill can have long-lasting results.
4). Allow children the opportunity to make decisions. Agency and control are experiences that children desire and seek out. While a child’s willfulness and desire for control can be (very) frustrating, we should provide opportunities for children to exercise independence and agency in a healthy way by guiding them through making decisions and providing (appropriate) opportunities for them to choose. Through the process of collaborative decision-making, children learn that they are capable of making choices and that they have agency over their choices and behavior, which is an important component of self-control. Further, children who have the opportunity to make guided choices and have some sense of independence and agency may be less likely to seek control during less appropriate times. Allowing your child to make everyday choices like what book to read at bedtime, what color cup to drink from, or what outfit to wear are great opportunities to practice decision-making.
5). Help children live with their choices. This can be an important point to cover before a decision is made. It is important to be clear with children when they make a choice that isn’t subject to change (e.g., what they want for breakfast or which toy they choose from the store). Parents can discuss this element with children as part of the decision-making process. Understanding consequences of decisions will likely be difficult for children under three to four to fully grasp, as the concept of cause and effect emerges more fully around that age. It is almost a guarantee that your child will experience decision remorse, which may be accompanied by tears or tantrums. Allowing your child the experience of living with their decision will help them understand and develop cause and effect, and will ultimately help them make careful decisions in the future, so consider the protest a learning opportunity (but don’t undo the choice!).
We make hundreds of decisions on a daily basis; by teaching our children the skills necessary to make decisions, we are preparing them to be independent, thoughtful, and responsible in the decisions they make.