We make decisions with either of two systems of thinking. System 1 (thinking fast) operates quickly and automatically, with little or no effort or sense of voluntary control. System 1 is used for brushing our teeth or driving home from work the same way every day. System 2 (thinking slowly) requires attention to the effortful critical thinking of our mind’s analytical mode, where logic and reason dominate. This post is dedicated to helping children develop competency with these more complex System 2 decisions.
Start Small & Simple
Start with simple choices and encourage toddlers to decide for themselves. Within reasonable limits, options and flexibility help children develop both autonomy and decision-making abilities. Narrow things down to two or three choices, such as which shirt to wear, which type of fruit they’d like for a snack, or which meal they’d like to order from the kid’s menu.
Model the Decision-Making Process
When we’re with our kids, practice thinking out loud when making choices—from what’s for dinner to weekend plans to the best way to complete a task. Subtly introduce them to some of the many considerations we encounter during the decision-making thought processes. “What is the decision? What are the options and alternatives? What are the pros and cons of each choice? How will my decision impact others? What is my gut feeling?”
Children who learn to accurately distinguish between their strengths and weaknesses—and their own true motivations—are also inclined to make better decisions.
The Greatest Driving Force is the Power of Why
As we learn to make decisions, we consider many variables, such as how, what, where, when, how many, and how much? More than any of these, we must familiarize our children with “The Power of Why.” We might not realize it, but “Why” is the greatest driver of human decision-making. By recognizing the crucial importance of “Why,” children grow to understand that not all choices are driven solely by x’s and o’s. Before making a big decision, thoughtful reflection can help kids recognize and appreciate the potential for utilitarian good, not just for themselves, but for everyone involved.
Provide Support as They Learn
If children are struggling with a choice, offer a listening ear and objective feedback, but don’t decide for them. With practice, they’ll learn to overcome anxiety. Consider simplifying things by presenting just two options. Have patience and let them decide. When they make their choice, offer words of affirmation to acknowledge them, supporting both their decision-making process and their self-confidence.
As we make mistakes, the best teacher is often the learning and awareness derived from learning about real-life consequences. Let’s say we catch our thirteen-year-old smoking. Instead of yelling at them, share videos of smokers speaking with a voice box expressing regret for starting a bad habit that ended up destroying their lives. Show pictures of blackened lungs that have been removed from the bodies of dead smokers. A terrifying dose of reality can be more impactful than conventional discipline.
Teach Them to Trust Their Gut
Sometimes things just feel right or wrong. If we ever sense a harrowing circumstance on the horizon, move swiftly to ensure safety, and later break down with children to reflect on what we might have felt that instigated our decision to remove our family from a certain environment. Teach children to recognize when their intuition is trying to tell them something, especially when they might be in harm’s way. With experience, children will learn to trust their gut.
Older Children, Bigger Decisions
As children get older, their choices become more and more likely to have long-lasting consequences. The friends they make—and more importantly—the friends they keep, often hold significant influence over them as they progress through adolescence. If ever uncomfortable, we want our children equipped with self-confidence to speak up and/or remove themselves from an inappropriate situation.
UMass Dartmouth has designed a useful infographic to help guide optimal decision-making…
Decision-Making for Goal Fulfillment = A Powerful Formula
As with so many good habits, so much synergy is gained between decision-making and having goals; strength in one automatically supports growth in the other. There is a redeeming power in writing things down; to-do lists, short-term and long-term goals, inspirational quotes, and thoughts from the heart that light a fire or keep passions burning. Write it down, give it life. Touch it, see it, and revisit it daily for inspiration. Writing Pros vs Cons lists helps us visualize trade-offs as we consider which moves to make.
When we decide, one powerful mind hack is to set in our hearts that we will be successful—and to set in our minds that we will enjoy the process. Then, allow faith and commitment to pull us toward fulfillment. Work hard—but don’t be a hamster on a wheel. Work smart—but don’t overthink it. Hard work works. Every single choice has consequences. Stay focused on the prize.
Conversely, we can make pursuit much more of an uphill battle by concentrating on pushing ourselves, trudging through obstacles, and enduring the reps as we strenuously crawl and claw toward our goal. When we focus on fighting through the process rather than being carried by the destination, we increase our exposure to getting derailed.
Our mentality can lighten or intensify the load we carry as we pursue achievement. During any journey, consistency, resilience, or resourcefulness can make a huge difference; the combined synergy of these three forces can make someone unstoppable. When struggling with goals, think about the desired outcome, become rejuvenated by why we want it, and do whatever it takes to make our dreams come true. Be smart… and then be relentless. Even if we aren’t successful, we will grow from the process. Failure is often the greatest teacher. Celebrate failure, learn, and build upon these lessons to proceed more intelligently; sometimes a step back keeps us on the truest course forward.
Young children start out by making small decisions. As they get older, decisions evolve in both complexity and importance. Learning and understanding the importance of “Why” informs and improves the decision-making process. Once a decision is identified, the above infographic is a great resource for helping guide the process. If a decision is made to pursue a goal—if we write it down and continuously contemplate the best approach—we can allow the goal itself to pull us towards its fulfillment. When we make a choice, and visualization intersects with accountability, success evolves from possibility to probability.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” —Proverbs 3:5-6 KJV
What happens when a brother and sister visit a pet store to pick a pet? Naturally, they can’t choose just one! This tale captures a classic childhood moment—choosing a pet—illuminating a life lesson: that it is hard to make up your mind, but sometimes you just have to do it!
If your house were on fire, what one thing would you save? Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park explores different answers to this provocative question in linked poems that capture the diverse voices of a middle school class. A lively dialog ignites as the students discover unexpected facets of one another—and themselves.
This interactive book empowers kids with the understanding that their choices will shape their days, and ultimately their lives into what they will be.
Why are some people brilliant decision makers, while others are consistently inept? Why do some people follow their instincts and win, while others stumble into error? Blink is about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in the blink of an eye—but aren’t as simple as they seem.
PLEASE NOTE: As an Amazon Associate, Fathers Truly Matter earns from qualifying purchases. The information in this post should not be construed as providing specific psychiatric, psychological, or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist.