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Life Ready Kids – Decisive Without Being Impulsive

Decisions Ahead signI’ve noticed that I’m not too good at deciding certain things.  Kelly and I were in The Home Depot standing before a wall of color swatches and were trying to find a paint color for our front door.  I could feel the tension and frustration move from my toes to my hands. Eventually, I could hear my words become “clippy” and I knew I was about to begin twitching.  I wasn’t going to throw a fit, but I definitely was frustrated because I had hit a wall, one that I couldn’t seem to scale.  I can’t tell the different between the colors: “cranberry”, “night flower”, and “raisin torte”.  I know that given a choice on a menu that I could make a pretty good choice, but this was toxic paint, not food.  While I was out of input, Kelly was adding all sorts of value to the decision by sharing variables like “base color”, something about “warm versus cold” and how it would complement our shrubs (okay, maybe I’m making that one up).  She was really making a choice, where I was just praying that whichever color I randomly picked when she said, “Which color do you like?”, would match the color she liked so we could buy it and leave.

Each of us have areas in which we make pretty good decisions and other areas where we tend to either make poor decisions or we simply avoid, because we don’t know how or have made mistakes in the past.

The tendency of most kids, and many of us adults, is to make the following mistakes in our decisions:

  • Too quick – not stopping to think first
  • Not enough options
  • Too focused on self, rather than how it impacts other people
  • Focused on now, rather than later

I personally have been feeling some paralysis in making some key decisions at work, and so I picked up the book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  I’ve been helped by their other books, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, and this one was even better. The focus of this book isn’t parenting, but I’d recommend it to everyone, especially parents and teachers who model decision-making to kids.  The authors capture a lot of examples and back it up with interesting studies.

Chip and Dan list four ‘villains’ of decision-making:

  • Narrow framing (unduly limiting the options we consider)
  • The confirmation bias (seeking out information that bolsters our beliefs)
  • Short-term emotion (being swayed by emotions that will fade)
  • Overconfidence (having too much faith in our predictions)

Throughout the book they share tools and examples of how to combat these villains of decision-making.  I won’t repeat their book (yes, you need to order it today), but I will give you a couple of ways to apply their suggestions when working with kids.

They teach an acronym called “WRAP” which really doesn’t make too much sense, but like all acronyms make the author look smarter.  The key for you as a parent is to find a chance to get involved with your kid in making a choice.  Allow them to make choices when it doesn’t involve a safety issue or deal with deciding age appropriateness (thanks Suzanne for the principle).  When they bring a choice to you, rather than solving it, help them work through the following steps of good decisions:

Widen Your Options – Most of us only naturally come up with two options, the one we want and the one we don’t.  Rather than an on/off switch, most decisions have 3-4 options.   Ask, “What if your favorite option wasn’t possible, what would you try then?”  This question forces them to think of other good options.  Explore other times past when they or someone else solved a similar problem and how they did it.

Reality-test Your Assumptions.  We tend to look for and value information that supports what we want to do.  It isn’t natural to consider the opposite of what we want to believe.  I’m not saying we teach our kids to be distrustful, but they do need to learn to consider the truth, rather than bite at every tempting choice.  There are better places to learn that you are tone-deaf than on “American Idol”.  We want to think we are great singers, but maybe should be open to considering other input.  We teach our kids to seek and interpret feedback, and to set up experiments to test our assumptions.

Attain Distance Before Deciding.  We make better decisions when we have perspective.  This means we aren’t so caught up in the decision that we can step back and see how it impacts our priorities or identity.  Our kids have so much stuff sold to them, from their perspective.  As adults when we are in the grocery store or toy store, we aren’t tempted in the same way that they are because we have a different perspective.  The goal of car salesmen is to get you to commit on the lot, not go home and think about it.  Our role as parents is to help our kids experience the wisdom of time and perspective.  Depending on the age, you may want to require that the toy they want to buy be on the top of their list of things they want for a week before they buy it.  You also may want to ask them, “How do you think (insert a person they know) would choose?” to help them consider other perspectives.

Prepare to be wrong.  This section of the book was probably one of the harder ones for me because I tend to make a decision and then move on.  I second-guess things too often.  This section isn’t advocating being “wishy-washy”, but instead is accepting that we can’t control outcomes but can prepare for possibilities.  We don’t know exactly how something is going to turn out, but can typically paint a best-case/worst-case scenario.  Our kids may need quite a bit of coaching, but as parents we can guide them through the process of anticipating outcomes and preparing to deal with them if they come up.

Let’s move from theory to a simple example.  It is Sunday afternoon and your son was just invited to come over to a friend’s house to watch the game. He has a paper due first thing Monday and so far hasn’t done much on it.  He also has a favorite TV show that evening he wants to watch.  He asks you, “Can I can I go watch the game, I’ll be home by supper?”  At this point you have a several choices.  Decide for him and make him organize his life for short-term success.  Avoid the conflict so you can focus on what you want to do for the rest of the afternoon.  Or, take a few minutes to help him process his options and make a decision.

It doesn’t have to be a checklist, but help him list all the things he wants and needs to do.  It may not be a problem to you given your perspective, but work to the point of showing him that he does have a decision, and may need to be thoughtful in planning his afternoon to hit his priorities.  Walk him through the WRAP steps.  Ask questions like:

  • If you can’t do only three of the four things, which ones would you chose and why?
  • Have you figured out a similar scheduling problem before? And how did you do it?  Did it work?
  • If your friend who was writing a paper with you was making the same choice, what would you advise them?
  • What decision do you think you would regret tomorrow night?
  • What would have to happen for everything to work perfectly?
  • What options do you have if things don’t work out?  Are you okay with doing those things?

Maybe your son will work through this and make a horrible decision. At that point you are one step closer to learning to make a good decision as long as you don’t step in and orchestrate things to keep your son from experiencing reality.  Remember, this decision, while important, isn’t about safety or age appropriateness, so they should be able to fail without permanent failure.  Your job is to help where you can, but also allow poor decisions to be made and patiently keep the door open to helping them work through the next decision.

There is so much to be said and so for those wanting more steps on helping kids with decisions, I’ve linked a very good article from “Psychology Today” below, but first a question?

What decisions are the hardest for you to see your kids make?  What decisions are hard for you and how have you learned to make better decisions?

Bonus Material:

Link to article in Psychology Today:

“Because decision-making is a skill, children can become very good at making ill-advised decisions; the more children do anything, good or bad, the better they get at it. The more skillful they become at making regrettable decisions, the more bad decisions they are likely to make in the future. Of course, the long-term personal, social, and professional implications of children growing up to be poor decision makers are profound, negative, and, I think, obvious, especially in our wired world where decisions can remain in cyberspace forever.”