How do children learn to make decisions?

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Learning how to make decisions is difficult. Regularly we spend many years learning. As a matter of fact, even as adults sometimes we make foolish decisions. So how can our children acquire this important skill? For a child learning to make decisión is somewhat similar to learning to ride a bike. Riding a bike is much simpler, of course! But in both cases the child has to develop important skills in order to get results. Parents can provide a bike, many opportunities to learn, and good training; but the child himself has to practice in order to learn. On the other hand, when we try to teach our kids to make decisions, we often encounter a major problem. When your daughter is learning to ride a bike you can see if she is pedaling or not, or if she is paying attention to the obstacles in front of her, or if she is loosing balance and is about to fall. Therefore, it is much easier to guide her and encourage her. However, when you teach her to make sound decisions, you cannot see what goes on in her little head. You can easily assume that she is just a stubborn girl, a knucklehead, rebellious kid who just does not want to cooperate. But the truth is that making decisions involves various skills.

What does making a decision involve?

Making a decision is just choosing one action among two or more possibilities. Shall I play or shall I eat?. Shall I respect my family in the playroom or shall I go to my room alone? Shall I walk to the car or shall I be carried by my father? These decisions seem too simple, of course! But you have to remember that your little one is just learning. Furthermore, even these simple decisions demand complex mental skills.

What skills are necessary? 

1. The child needs to understand the options

First of all the kid needs to clearly understand his options. But in order to do that he needs to be able to pause whatever he is doing and focus on what mom is telling him. What happens if the child does not know how to stop and continues centered in his game while you are talking to him? You can assume that he is stubborn, get frustrated and angry, and feel the need to impose your control over the situation. However, you can also think that the child is still not able to switch the focus of his thinking from one situation to the next. Then you can turn his little face towards you and looking at him in his eyes you can tell him, “Little John, look at me. What are you going to choose? Are you going to continue playing with your tablet or are you coming to the table to eat with us?” By doing this, you will be helping him to stop what he is thinking and to focus on his options. This will help him to make a decision.

2. The child needs to understand his responsibility 

Little John also needs to know who is responsible for the decision. Making a decision on his own might be difficult for him. After all he is used to the adults directing his life and making the household decisions. From his point of view, he might think that what his mother is doing is just giving him and ultimatum to stop playing. Then you need to tell him, “Little John, this is your decision. You need to choose what you think is best. You can continue playing with your tablet, or you can come to the table and eat with us.” Otherwise he might think that his mother is going to make the decision and that what he needs to do is continue playing until mom forcefully takes the tablet from him.

3. The child needs to know what is going on

Little John needs to know important facts about what is going on. Will dinner be served in a few minutes or is it already served? Is his game almost over or not? Can he pause his game and continue afterwards? Can he finish his game and then still joint the family at the table? He might not even think about these things, and if he thinks about them, he might not know how to ask the appropriate questions. You can help him think though these issues and get the information he needs to make his decision. For example, you can ask him, “Little John, How long is it until the game is over?

4. The child needs to understand the consequences 

He needs to know clearly what will happen one way or the other. If he does not come to table, he will be left without supper and will not be able to eat until breakfast the following morning. Remember that he is learning and might not be able to quickly assess the consequences. You can help by asking him, “Little John, Do you understand that if you do not come and eat with us there will be no food until tomorrow morning? What do you think will happen to you?”

5. The child need to think about what is right

The fifth step in this process is thinking about what is important and right. Most likely, little John is not ready to think about this on his own. He is having fun with the game and is just exited about it. Mom then can tell him, “Little John, We like to eat together. We are your family and we would love for you to eat with us. Do you think is good for us to show how much we love each other by enjoying our company when we eat?” 

6. The child need to evaluate the pros and the cons of his decision

Little John can continue enjoying his game, but he will not be able to eat until the following morning. Besides he will disappoint his family by not eating with them. He needs to evaluate the pros and the cons of his actions and make his decision. If he decides to continue playing, you do not have to worry or get upset. He made a decision and will have to deal with the consequences. You can say, “Little John, I am a little disappointed that you chose no to eat with us, but I hope you will like what we will have for breakfast tomorrow.”

Three basic recommendations

As you see, even for a five-year-old making a decision can be tough. On top of the skills mentioned above, he will also have to deal with his frustration, feelings, impulses and the habitual reactions which he have learned so far. For this reason it is important to keep in mind the following suggestions.

1. Start as early as possible.

Training should start as the baby is born. It needs to continue during his first months and during his first years. As the child grows older the process becomes more complex, there will be more options, and the kid will acquire more habitual responses. Therefore start early and be consistent and persistent. 

2. Limit the options

With the little ones you need to give only two options, making it clear that if the kid does not decide the parents will decide for him. Ask him questions like, “Do you want to wear the blue or the back trousers?” “Do you want to put your coat on or would you rather carry it?” “Are you going to brush you teeth before or after putting your pajamas on?”

3. Limit the importance of the decision allowed according to the age of the child

Some decisions are very important. You have to limit the control of the kids according to their age. You cannot tell a five-six-old, for example, “Do you want to watch TV or do you homework?” Homework is important and you have to limit the power of the little child over the decision. You can say instead, “Do you want to sit here at the table doing nothing, or do you want to do your homework and watch TV afterwards?” On the other hand, DO NOT EVER tell your teenage girl, “Linda, do you want to wear the pink or the yellow blouse?” That might be the last time you see her in your house.

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