Teaching kids about decision making

No matter what age we are, we all have to make decisions every single day. They can be little decisions like what to have for breakfast. They can also be big decisions about what to study in school, whether or not to go to college, where to go to college, and how to make friends. The need to make decisions doesn’t disappear with age. As you get older you still wonder what hobbies to pursue, who to date, where to live, and whether to take or change a job, whether or not to have children, and so on. Hopefully every teenager or young adult has a responsible parent or other caring adult to support them in making good decisions. That support is a tricky balancing act between encouraging independence versus providing guidance and protection from all the possible things that can go wrong.

I think it’s pretty universal that the goal of a parent is to raise our kids to become healthy, successful young adults. By ‘successful’ I mean able to meet their own basic needs in life. The ability to make good decisions is an important part of that goal.

One of my daughters has been working for a business owned by a family member. She’s been employed there for more than a year and has enjoyed the work. She even thinks it might be a career path that she wants to follow long-term, but she has some doubts. An opportunity presented itself to her related to a career path that for a long time she thought she’d follow. To try it out she’d have to quit the job at the family member’s business. Saying she agonized over the decision would be an understatement. Giving up a steady job for one that might actually pay a little bit less, and could potentially not meet her expectations, was a difficult decision to make.

She directly asked me what she should do about it. I flat out refused to give her a direct answer, which frustrated her at first. However, I was definitely willing to be a sounding board as she thought through what decision would be best for her. In addition to the general stress that comes with making a job change, her emotions were heightened because of the family connection. I tried to come up with ways to help her stay as calm as possible so she had the best chance of making a well thought out, rational decision best suited to her needs. Ultimately, she definitely did exactly that. She thought about the potential consequences of alternative decisions that could be made in her situation. She took her time and listed pros and cons for each option. For a couple of weeks she even arranged to work the new job part-time on the weekends so she could try and be sure she would like it.  Most importantly, in doing all that, she was being very responsible before taking any final action.

Being Available

There are so many disadvantages to having a disabled parent. One of the few advantages is that I’m always available to them. I’m fortunate to be able to provide guidance and support for decision-making when they ask for help or advice, and to volunteer it sometimes even when they don’t ask. No matter how busy I ever am with other things, I’m never too busy to listen and talk about whatever is on their minds.

 Rehearsing

Helping kids of any age think ahead about potentially difficult situations is a logical way to help prepare them for those situations.  Stress, high pressure, peer pressure, even financial pressure can impact a huge variety of decisions your kids may have to make. If you can help them anticipate those situations, they can have potential plans already in place so they don’t act without thinking about it enough.

I’ve even made sure to teach my kids about the wisdom of having ‘talking points’ literally written down and committed to memory when anticipating potentially stressful discussions. If they know key things they want to mention, they’re more likely to be able to work those things into the conversation. Just a few keywords jotted down in the notes section on a mobile phone can prevent regrets about forgetting to bring up things they wanted to talk about in an important conversation.

Life has few guarantees

In my little family we have a lot of experience with things not going as planned. The two biggest are that we never expected my husband to be killed by a drunk driver, and I never planned to get stricken with an uncurable, debilitating disease. There was not much that could have been done to prepare for those things ahead of time.

But even the most carefully pondered decisions can ultimately lead to consequences and results totally different from what was hoped for or expected. The result can even be some kind of complete failure.

Whether you’re 5, 15, 25, 50 or any other number on the calendar of your life, things are not always going to go your way. What we perceive as failure can actually lead to change and triumph. When we stumble, we can either accept defeat or aspire to meet another challenge. We can be ashamed, or we can be brave and bold. It’s a difficult lesson to learn and I think some people go a lifetime without really coming to that realization.  That’s why I think it’s so important we try to make our kids understand and internalize that truth.

They have to understand that there are very few life and death decisions or choices to be made in life. The short list includes:

  • Always be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t drink or do drugs and drive.
  • Don’t play with matches
  • Be aware of reasonable safety precautions if you’re bungee jumping or parasailing or anything along those lines.

Aside from that, most mistakes you can make in life are things from which you can recover.

When my daughter told me her decision to leave her safe job and test the waters in a completely different field, I’ll admit I was kind of surprised. But then I thought about it and I wasn’t so surprised after all because the new job is in a field of work she’s had an interest in since she was a child. She figured out that she’ll still be able to meet her monthly expenses, which will never be as low again in her adult life as they are now. She’s going to still be going to college and pursuing the educational path she’s on.

If she doesn’t take this opportunity to explore a different career, she’ll always wonder if she made a mistake by not giving it a try, and that’s something she’d regret later on in life. And so, she’s decided for herself that she’s going to take the jump into the new field, and give it her all. I’m proud and excited for what her future will hold, and no matter the outcome, I’ll be here for her.

There are no scorecards in life but if there were, I’d be marking this down as a win for my daughter and a big parenting win for me.

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