The most important thing you can do to help your children make their own decisions is to keep asking them questions, so they can come up with their own answers. There are lots of techniques you can teach them to use, although they won't need to use them all every time. Indeed, they will make some minor decisions pretty instinctively, but there will be bigger decisions as they get older for which they may need to use some or all of these techniques. Some of the techniques include
- Establish the requirements—What does this decision need to achieve? One needs to make sure everything gets taken into account. For example, the next-day's pants or skirt may need warm enough for a trip to the park, or old enough that you or your child won't care if they get muddy. Course offering choices when there is flex room may mean the child needs to ensure that she can still study the subjects she wants to get As or Bs in, or that in her free time she figures out how to avoid a bully no matter what. So before making a decision, one has to know what will constitute a good decision. Talk this decision-making process through with your child by asking questions.
- Identify the options—As with your child's forgotten homework, he could stay up late, do it in the morning, or not do it and face the music. Are there any other possibilities? Again, talk this through and ask your child if he can see an alternative. This is a good opportunity for children to practice their lateral thinking skills, too; they may think of a solution that would never have dawned on you.
- Weigh the pros and cons—Whether you and your child write a physical list or simply do this in your heads, it's important to see the arguments on all sides. Remember that not all arguments have equal weight. It could be that one pro might outweigh a dozen cons. For example, the detention one would get for not handing in homework might outweigh all the advantages of that course of action. So the idea is not to count them up, but to assess the overall weight of them. You'll need to help your child by asking her to come up with pros and cons, and then asking her which she thinks out balances the other.
- Worst-case scenario—Sometimes you know perfectly well what will happen whichever course of action you take. But life isn't often that simple, and usually you're balancing risks. The child might get away with not handing in the homework at all—if the teacher happens to be away, or in a really good mood—but what's the worst that could happen? Ask your child about the likely worst outcomes so he can see whether this is a risk he wants to take.
- Jettison options—Very often you can narrow down the decision to two choices. Your child might discard the idea of doing the homework now as it's just too late and she is too tired, leaving her with a straight either/or choice: get up early, or abandon the homework and cross her fingers.
Decision making is a skill that can be learned, and you can teach it to your children very easily by giving them plenty of practice, and by asking questions so that they come up with the answers for themselves. There's only one really tricky bit: You have to let them follow through with their own decision, even if you don't agree with it.
It's not a good idea to let your teenager choose, for example, whether to come on the family vacation or not, if you're going to override him if he decides not to. (Personally, mind you, I wouldn't want to be on a family vacation with a child who didn't want to be there. It could be distinctly unpleasant.) Equally, don't give your two-year-old the run of the wardrobe if you're going to tell her at the end that she can't have the outfit she's chosen because it's not warm enough.
Of course, you can always limit your child's choices. "Here are three pairs of warm pants. Which one would you like to wear?" Just make sure you're not letting the child consider any options that you would overrule. And that includes having to let him make the decision that risks a detention or some other punishment at school. It's the only way your child will learn for next time.