When your children are small, you chose everything for them, from what they will wear to where they go that day.
As parents, we know that someday, they will have to make decisions without us. How do we make sure they know how to make good decisions that keep them safe in an increasingly dangerous world?
The short answer is, you can’t. Not really.
But there is something you can do.
A few years back my oldest daughter was eighteen and sitting in the living room, plinking on our piano. Like a slow-motion replay, I still remember her silhouette as she made her announcement. Head down, looking at the keyboard, she tried for casual; “So, Mom, I’ve decided I want to go into the Army full time.” Arms tight to her side, she braced for argument.
Over an hour later, I had cycled through reasoning, debate, bullying, cajoling and even pleading. The discussion ended with this exchange;
“Why? WHY do you have to go where people are DYING?”
“It just feels right, mom.”
With those five words, my world-view spun and the pivot point suddenly was NOT me. I realized: this was about my daughter, and HER life.
“Give me time,” was all I could muster.
It took me a week to come around. During that time, I remembered my brother, Doug. Doug made it home from Vietnam safe and sound, but died in a car accident less than two years later.
Then I realized: my mother, with all her control, had not been able to keep her son safe. Life is not safe, and the best we can do as parents is to help our children grow into happy adults who know how to make good decisions.
Perhaps not ones that keep them safe. But hopefully, ones that are right for them in that moment.
I did not raise my daughters in the idyllic, swoop-in-and-rescue type of childhood I had. Their upbringing was chaotic and we moved an incredible amount. Yet, somehow, they have all three turned out to be emotionally strong, self-reliant young women with good decision making abilities and the confidence to take risks and seek their passion.
Now that I am a grandmother and find myself offering advice to younger parents, I have discovered some key points that I frequently emphasize. Researching these points, I have come up with four things essential for raising good decision makers.
#1 Make a Clear Connection between Choice and Consequences
When my husband and I went to a parenting class, we emerged with an incredibly simple concept: de-personalize parenting.
I know that sounds a bit backwards on a blog that advocates connection-based parenting every chance it gets. Let me explain.
A typical scenario in our house was something like this: three daughters aged 8- 12 in the house, both parents working full time. We would come home to prepare dinner and discover that someone had left dirty dishes all over the kitchen. Sound familiar?
My reaction depended heavily on how tired I was. Tired enough, we would all go out, or eat PBJ for dinner. Grumpy enough, and they would be in the kitchen doing dishes under my glare.
Action and consequence were not connected, and the results of an action were unpredictable because I took it personally.
When one of my children did something I saw as “wrong”, I saw it as a reflection of my ability as a parent.
Enter the consequence list. In a class taught by Ivan and Judy Brewer, who between them had over 50 years of parenting experience, I learned that parenting should not resemble a game of Calvin ball.
Consequences need to be a natural outcome of a child’s behavior, related, respectful, and reasonable, and work best when you have an empathetic, connected relationship with your child.
Having pre-established boundaries and consequences enabled me to stop worrying constantly about establishing my parental authority, and kept me a more consistent parent.
A simple piece of paper on our fridge listing the consequences enabled me to replace a 20-minute rant with, “Who’s socks are these? Audrey? What’s the consequence for leaving things out?”
Since my daughters were old enough, we sat down with them and drafted our list together. The list is a living document; open to change and evolution as the family grows. Even younger children can contribute their thoughts.
If your children are too young to read, you can draw pictures for them. Start with a set of actions or household boundaries such as: playing with outdoor toys inside. Ask your kids, “What do you think should happen if you are playing with a ball inside, and you break a vase?”
Here is an example consequence list as a starting point:
|Leaving stuff out||Pick up stuff, 1 extra chore|
|Not turning in assignments||Detention* until assignments were current|
|Violating curfew||1 evening of detention for every 5 minutes late|
|Backtalk, disrespect||Time out**, 1 minute per year of age|
|Fighting over shared belongings||Removal of item for a day ***|
|Out of bounds ****||Minor – day of detention. Major – Grounding, variable day lengths according to the severity of the transgression.|
|Damaging things (not on accident, but through negligence)||Repair/replace item, clean up mess. This time comes out of their free time|
Some key points on implementation of the list:
- They are not in the doghouse, it is not personal. The list is just a neutral third party, and the consequence is a natural result of their choices.
- Don’t pull out the big guns right away. Don’t choose grounding for leaving socks out. It’s not a natural consequence, nor is it reasonable.
- Consistency is key.
- Changing the list is an option, but not while a consequence is in action. Set a time later for discussion.
* Detention: it’s a mini-grounding. Intense but short. We removed free time. When the child comes home from school, they are allowed to eat their snack, take care of other duties, then restricted to their room with no computer, phone, social time, or books until the needed task is completed.
*** I would now change this one too. I would add: have the children come up with a plan (if age-appropriate) for sharing. This can be as simple as a sit down discussion, or a written schedule and encourages the development of conflict resolution skills and consequently, emotional intelligence.
**** Out of bounds – this is a catch-all for breaking household rules. We divided it into minor and major. For example: getting off the bus a stop early without permission – out of bounds minor. Being caught at a frat party? Out of bounds major. You can’t think of everything, and this is a great way to add flexibility to the list, so it can grow with your family.
Adding the potential for positive consequences to the list would expand the usefulness of this tool. In the real world, trust is earned, and this list has the potential to teach that skill as well. One example might be if your child is consistently early or on time for curfew; move it a little later, as age-appropriate.
Implementing a consequence list saved our sanity, and gave us a neutral ground to discuss keeping rules uniform in multiple households. Ideally, in split families, the consequences would be similar and agreed upon.
#2 Validate Decision-Making Tools: Feelings and Thoughts
Feelings and thoughts are how we navigate the decision making process. Teaching children to listen to and trust their own feelings and thoughts will create adults who can find their way in the world. The quickest route to validating your children’s feelings is to empathize.
- See the world as someone else sees it: this requires distancing yourself from your own recording in your head, and really seeing what’s happening with your child.
- Be non-judgemental: feelings and thoughts are just that, feelings and thoughts.
- Understand your child’s feelings: Keep this really simple. How are they acting? Upset? Don’t worry about the “why”, just the “what is”. i.e. “You seem angry”, “You seem really upset”
- Communicate your understanding: “Sweetie, you seem really upset that your milk spilled.”
The aim is to validate children’s feelings and thoughts without compromising parenting choices. When you put your opinions on hold and acknowledge your toddler’s feelings over a denied sweet, or your middle-school’s daughter’s heartbreak over her boyfriend of two hours, you connect and empower your child to believe in their feelings.
When my eldest daughter was twelve, she was returning from a visit with her father’s family. On our long road trip back, she shared a conversation she and her step-grandma had. This was an especially sore point for me at the time, so I was extremely defensive about our parenting beliefs and family culture.
As my daughter elaborated on grandma’s opinion, my blood pressure rose. I was about to explode in defensiveness, when I had a moment of clarity. My choice was simple: I could either try to push the woman’s opinion out of my daughter’s head with my own “better” opinion, or I could teach my daughter to value her opinions, and decide for herself what she thought.
This was a very vulnerable place to put myself. I felt exposed, allowing my child to choose someone else’s opinion over mine. I resolved to swallow my feelings, and focused on her.
I turned to her and said, “Sweetie. You are an intelligent young woman and can see things for yourself. What do you think of what Grandma Laura said?”
My daughter thought a minute, and replied, “I don’t think she’s right. In fact, I was weirded out by what she said, and how she treats my cousins.”
Vindication and triumph aside, even if my daughter wasn’t completely honest in her opinion, handling it this way took her through the motions of thinking and opining.
#3: Help Them Understand the Decision Making Process
- Pause – Identify the decision. Have children ask “Why do I want this?”
- “What are my options?”
- “What are the consequences of my actions?”
- “Which consequence is best” – teach them to look both short term and long term.
- Review the decision and consequences
The first and last steps are the most critical in learning how to make good decisions. Children are often impulsive; teaching them to pause and recognize a decision can bring thought into the process. To maintain growth, flexibility, and gain confidence in decision-making, you need to review the decision and the consequences.
For younger children, steps one and two are often combined. You might present limited alternatives and identify that as a decision to be made. You might offer your four-year-old the choice between a cherry lollipop and a grape lollipop. Even this little decision can be reviewed: “Did you like the grape one? Do you think you might try the cherry next time?”
Slightly older children can learn from you sharing the entire process on bigger decisions. Perhaps you want to choose a bike for your seven-year-old. If you’re like me, you will likely research brands and prices, identify the bikes you are willing to consider, etc.
Your seven-year-old can accompany you to the store, try out bikes, express his preference in colors, cool factor, etc. You can show him prices, explain why some are more, the pros and cons of each: i.e. this one is better made, and will not break when you jump off that wooden ramp. (Ok maybe that’s a bad example…).
When the bike is chosen, be sure to consider his input, and after he’s ridden it awhile, evaluate the choice. Is it as cool as he hoped? Would he choose a different one next time? This allows children to learn adaptability as well as how to make good decisions collaboratively.
#4: Give Them Experience with Decisions, Especially the Consequences of the Decision, Even if it Includes Failure
Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.
– Brene Brown
Big, scary decisions come into our children’s lives whether we like them or not, and they can come earlier than we would like. I was still worrying about my daughter’s choice of wearing my mother’s seventies outfit to the science fair (no it was not a costume event), when I got a rude awakening.
During an appointment, my daughter’s doctor pointed out that final medical decisions were my daughter’s; Washington State law gives children the rights to make their own medical decisions at age 12.
Immediately humbled, I felt sick. I thought I had done nothing to prepare her for this kind of decision-making. This incident forced me to realize that I had a young adult on my hands, and my days of making decisions for her were quickly coming to an end.
Unbeknownst to me, I actually had been giving her one of the most important tools required for good decision-making: experience. Not just experience in the process, but in the consequences.
Letting her wear the funky dress was just one example.
Another was letting her go stay with her father. The rough-and-tumble year that ensued did not turn out the way she planned, and the failure of that experiment taught her more things in one year than I could have in five years of lecturing.
It turns out that saving children from the consequences of their decisions, including failure, can undermine their ability to adopt a growth mindset, and reduce their chances of success in the world.
We can help them gain experience, and grow into many of these bigger decisions, however. Here are some strategies to experience decision-making.
Find age-appropriate “safe” areas for your children to make decisions and experience consequences, including potential failure. **WARNING** most of these ‘strategies’ involve sitting on your hands as a parent.
Pre-school and early grade school
A great one here is clothing choices. Limit their choices to weather-appropriate clothing, but if they mix and match from there, let them have at it.
Later grade school:
Clothing here works too, you can actually take it up a level. After multiple lectures, I decided to let my 6th grader go to school in flip-flops with three feet of snow on the ground. I figured she was big enough to make other choices if her feet got cold. She still has all her toes, and wasn’t sent home from school, so it would appear the consequences weren’t too dire.
Resist the urge to do their homework projects for them (especially science fair and art projects!). A better strategy is to let them take in what they did, complete or not.
Middle school/High school
Decisions are getting larger by this point, and can be on par with adults in many cases. Selecting their own class schedules, picking the college, managing their time. See the note above about projects!!
Older children are now choosing their own wardrobe and friends. You still have veto power, but use it sparingly. A mini skirt for school? Back to the decision-making process; remember Step 1, and talk about the alternatives and consequences. Let HER list them. The idea is to get her to think of consequences, not just obey (or rebel against) your ‘rule’.
For several years, I taught children martial arts, and we spent incredible amount of time in scenarios. What if someone grabs you by this hand, what if they grab your hair.
Unrelated Side Note: The number one way we taught children to defend themselves was to learn to yell “This is not my mom or my dad, call 9-1-1!” – this is more coherent than just screaming, and can’t be mistaken for a tantrum.
What-if is a great tool to practice decision-making when you are not under pressure. Role-play with your children about scenarios they are likely to experience. Be sure to include multiple alternatives, consequences to choices, and review the decision.
Some age-appropriate suggestions:
3-4 year olds:
What if another child takes your toys, what can you do?
What if another child hits you, what can you do?
If you see a friend stealing, what can you do?
If a friend is hurt, what can you do?
If a friend wants you to help them cheat on a test, what can you do?
If a grownup asks you to do something you don’t want to do, what can you do?
Middle school, High school
These conversations can take an adult turn at this point, and you can converse nearly as peers. You can even turn it around; bring up decisions that YOU are/have struggled with. Let your children start to help you problem solve. This is the graduation phase; they’re learning to make some adult decisions at this point.
If a friend offers you drugs/sex/alcohol what can you do? (not what SHOULD you do)
If you’re invited to a party that you know will break house rules, what can you do? (remember, no pre-judging choices here…)
If someone steals from you, what can you do?
If your boy/girlfriend cheats on you, what can you do?
The idea is to practice decision making without the emotional stress. Just like in martial arts. I practice getting out of a hairgrab in a safe zone with a friend. If it ever happens in real life, I have a practiced, well-thought-out decision ready at hand.
These four steps will help raise adults who are competent decision makers. We need to recognize early on that parenting is a progression of backing out of our children’s decision-making processes, while continuing to maintain expectations for them.
Oh, and if you’re curious, my daughter did end up joining the Army, and served in Iraq as a convoy driver. After I remembered my brother, I did some research. According to the numbers, my daughter was safer driving a convoy in Iraq than she was driving to university every day.
So I let go.
I went to her and told her she had my blessing to pursue whatever her heart wanted. She is now home, safe and sound, and getting ready to re-enlist. Yes, I will sprout more grey hair when she does, but I want my children to LIVE the life they want while they’re here.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick contemplation questions today –
- Are you raising kids who can make good decisions?
- In your perspective, what is a “good” decision – something that agrees with your choices or something that is right for the child? Of course, we would all prefer a decision that would meet both criteria – but for a decision that is either/or, which one would you be OK with?
- When was the last time you “rescued” your child from the consequences of their decision? (one that was not endangering their health or safety)
- What were the possible consequences of that decision?
- Do you think you could let their decision stand next time?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Over the next week –
- Discuss with the children (as age appropriate) possible actions and consequences for their actions. I.e. Ask them what they think should happen if they hit another child on the playground, did not turn in assignments, or leave things out.
- Build on the previous discussion, and craft a consequence/houses rules list. Post a consequence list on the fridge.
- Have an age-appropriate what-if discussion with your child.