Everywhere you turn, it seems some parenting expert is telling us children and teens are basically incapable of making wise decisions. Often they talk about an under-developed pre-frontal cortex or some other “science” to back their theories. What’s interesting to me is that I know plenty of teens and young adults who regularly make wise decisions – my own daughter included. In fact, a quick look at the history of our own country will show teens and young adults were making decisions (and often very mature ones) at much younger ages than do young people today.
So what’s the difference? I have no scientific data to back my theory, but I believe the pre-frontal cortex is like the rest of the brain. It can be trained to do more than it currently does. You don’t refuse to teach your kids to read, because they weren’t born knowing how to read. Yes, different children are capable of learning to read at different ages and speeds, but there are many educators who have shown most kids can actually learn to read earlier than they currently do.
I believe the same theories apply to the part of the brain that helps us make wise decisions. Unless it is damaged, that area can be stimulated and learn wise decision making much earlier than we currently expect of many of our young people. But just like most kids must be taught how to read, most must be actively taught how to make wise – and in our case godly – decisions.
So what can you do to help your kids learn to make wiser decisions at a younger age than many of their peers? Every child is different, but here are some things that should help almost any child begin learning how to make wiser choices:
- Let them observe you make decisions in age appropriate ways. Not all discussions between parents as they make decisions are appropriate for young children. On the other hand, modeling how you and your spouse make decisions is a good example for your kids. Let them see how you both present pieces of information and consider their merit as you make your choices. Even something as simple as knowing how you decided your family should eat at a particular restaurant can help them begin to understand the process of decision making.
- Explain to your kids (when appropriate) why you made certain decisions. This is particularly important if you say “no” to one of their requests. Helping them understand why you were concerned about them spending the night in a house with no parents also helps them begin to process that adult decisions involve more than getting to do whatever you want to do. (A common misconception held by many kids and teens.)
- Teach them basic godly principles. If your kids have known for years God doesn’t want them lying or stealing, for example, it will help them know they should eliminate activities requiring them to do those things. Don’t assume that just because your children have attended church and Sunday School all of their lives this information is “common sense” for them. Make sure you specifically state what God wants from them and for them multiple times over the years.
- Have them help you research decisions. Looking for a new major purchase? Taking a vacation? Teach your kids how to get more accurate information to help them make wise choices. Then give them lots of practice helping you research the best items to purchase or the most interesting places to visit on a vacation.
- Start giving very young children two option choices. Asking a two year old what she wants to wear with a closet full of options can be extremely overwhelming. Too many options – including some inappropriate ones – can set young children up for failure – especially when mom then overrules their choice. Start by giving a simple choice – one where you like both options – to give your kids practice. “Would you like to wear the red dress or blue dress today?”, gives your child practice and confidence because you don’t immediately criticize their choice.
- Gradually give your kids the chance to make more complex choices. I always feel sorry for kids in high school who have had their entire lives micro-managed and then are suddenly told to pick the “perfect” university from hundreds of options. Something that major should not be the first complex decision your child has ever made. In fact, by the time your child is in their mid-teens (if you have prepped them properly) there should be very few decisions you are making for your child. Yes, that’s right. With a few exceptions, most prepared older teens are perfectly capable of making wise decisions about even complex situations. They may still want or need your input from time to time, but if you are still picking out what clothes to wear for an otherwise healthy teen, you are setting him or her up for failure.
- Don’t micromanage your child’s decision making process. Sometimes the best way to teach children how to make wise decisions is to teach them what questions to ask themselves during the process. Which means if you see them headed towards a poor choice, you don’t immediately put on the breaks (unless their life is in danger). Instead start asking open ended questions requiring them to put extra thought into their choice. “What problems might you have if you wear a sleeveless dress on a snowy day?” is much more educational that saying “You can’t wear that, you will freeze!” Yes, the later helps them if they are ever in that exact scenario again, but the first question teaches them a skill they can use with any decisions – “What negative things could happen with this choice?”
- Let them experience consequences and find what they need to learn from them. Sometimes, it’s best to let your child get a little chilly or experience another negative consequence from their choice – especially if their research told them it would be a bad option. Teach them to look at the consequences – positive and negative – from their choices and see what larger lessons they can learn from them. It is as important to learn doing their research helped them get a better deal on something as it was for them to learn to check the weather forecast before wearing a sleeveless dress in January.
- Give them tons of practice. Making wise decisions – especially on complex topics – is a skill we work all of our lives to master. The more guided practice you give your kids before life forces them to make choices without your guidance (say freshman year in college!), the more likely they are to have the skill sets they need to make those choices wise ones.
Taking the time to work with your kids on making wise, godly decisions may seem exhausting. Trust me though, if you have put in the time and effort, you are much less likely to get those calls that make you crazy. The lack of life experience means they will still make mistakes, but at least they know how to think through the process in a mature way. It’s definitely worth the time and effort.