My husband and I enrolled our son Tyler in soccer when he was 5. For years we endured early Saturday morning games in the cold and drizzly Northwest weather. I can remember sitting there — shivering, hair dripping, teeth chattering — watching him play. I was miserable, but my husband had been an avid soccer player in his youth and wanted Tyler to have the same opportunity. Tyler never complained, so we assumed he wanted it, too.
The year Tyler turned 13, his team made a move into a more demanding league, and we needed to decide if he would move up with them. We were shocked when he declared that he was done with soccer. He admitted that the only reason he played was because we had wanted him to.
I'd spent all those Saturday mornings in the rain for nothing — until my husband and I realized we were probably doing the same thing to him in other areas. I’m sure the rest of our kids are now grateful this incident happened, as it started the process of our letting each of them take responsibility for more of their own decisions.
Good decision-making is like any other skill. Sometimes kids get it right; sometimes they get it wrong. “Getting it wrong” can be just as important as getting it right. Unfortunately, many parents aren’t willing to let their kids make those valuable and messy mistakes.
Support for decision-making
Too often, we find it easier to make decisions for our kids, rather than taking the time to have the necessary conversations with them so they can complete a task on their own. Sometimes, it may seem safer to do it ourselves than risk their making a bad decision, or one with which we don’t personally agree. It can also feel painful and unloving to let them experience the consequences that may come with making a bad decision.
Essentially, though, we ought to be empowering our children — giving them the tools and confidence to live independently in the real world. By allowing them opportunities to practice making their own decisions, we position our children to then develop the skills and competencies they need to succeed.
Being a third party
I have found that a particularly effective decision-making strategy is to invite my children to project their decisions onto a third party. This can depersonalize the emotional element, if there is one. You might recount a similar situation in your own life and how it turned out. Or, you might ask them how they would advise a friend in the same circumstances. This kind of a discussion promotes a safe, sharing environment for objective decision-making.
Another strategy that worked well when our children were much younger and needed more guidance in their decision-making was to give them a limited number of options. Any of the options would have been acceptable to us, but it gave them a feeling of empowerment to be able make simple choices about what they would wear or what they would eat. So, for example, when my 5-year-old might have chosen to wear shorts on a snowy day in the middle of January, I wouldn’t say, “What do you want to wear today?” Rather, I would ask something like, “Which pants would you like to wear today — your jeans or the black leggings?” At mealtime, instead of, “What do you want to eat?” — in which case the answer would likely have been, “Ice cream!” — I might ask, “Would you like a grilled cheese sandwich or a quesadilla?”
As my children matured and increasingly exhibited good decision-making skills, I stopped offering them options and asked them, “What are the options? Which do you think is the best option?” We found this helped build self-confidence and trust, and often led to being invited to share our opinion when they asked, “What do you think, Mom (or Dad)?” It was surprising how often our teens would ask for our opinions when we weren’t too quick to offer unsolicited advice.
I hope that the most memorable decision-making lesson our children will have taken from our home, though, is the practice of seeking God’s wisdom for decision-making through prayer. My husband and I often invited our children, at all ages, to pray with us about matters big and small. For example, when we were contemplating an out-of-town move, we had a family meeting to pray about first — and discuss second — our options and feelings.
Each child was invited to pray individually and ask the Lord for wisdom and direction, and then share with the family the thoughts that came to his or her mind. Our adult children tell us they still follow this practice of seeking God for the wisdom they need, for whatever decision is at hand (James 1:5).
Similarly, some good friends of ours annually invited their children to share in the decision-making about the family’s year-end charitable giving. It reinforced the principle of stewardship, encouraged the children to explore their interests and passions, and helped them identify those in the world they wanted to help the most. They learned to research, analyze and pray over their decisions — building character qualities of generosity, joy of giving, stewardship and others-centeredness along with good decision-making skills.
Making tough decisions is never easy. But if we can empower our kids to make them when they are in our home and the stakes are lower, their ability to make good decisions later, when they're on their own, increases. They'll be better equipped for the challenges and responsibilities of the real world.
Arlyn Lawrence is the co-author of Parenting for the Launch: Raising teens to succeed in the real world with Dennis Trittin. As a writer, editor and speaker emphasizing children and family leadership, she equips parents and educators with vision, perspective and practical solutions for raising “real-world ready kids.”