Tuesday 16 January 2018

Help children make good choices

As adults we often make decisions based on gut feelings but we have a responsibility to equip our children with the necessary skills to take the right decisions

David Coleman

David Coleman

We make hundreds of decisions every day. Some of them are small and relatively inconsequential while some are big, with very significant consequences. Some of the more important decisions we make are those that concern our children.

When they are infants we have to make every decision on their behalf. We choose what they wear, what they eat, where they sleep and whom they interact with. This is appropriate, and indeed vital, as small babies can't make decisions for themselves.

But somewhere along the developmental trajectory of every child they learn to make decisions for themselves. This learning about decision-making is just as important as any academic learning that they undertake.

Yet, if we were to ask ourselves how they learned to make decisions we would struggle to pinpoint how, when, and where the learning took place.

Last month, in this column, I looked at risk. I examined how adults and teenagers quantify and respond to risk. Implicit in that exploration of risk was the assumption that people were making decisions about risk. Decisions that involve risk may count as some of the more important and consequential decisions that we make.

If we are being honest with ourselves these are the kinds of decisions that we want our children and teenagers to be skilled at making. For example, it is nice that your daughter can choose matching clothes and decide on a 'look' for herself going to a disco but it is crucial that she can make decisions about her behaviour that will keep her safe while she is there.

Before looking at the interplay between risk and decision-making, let's look at how we make decisions in the first instance.

We always follow the same process. There are six steps involved in making a decision. In practice we will often carry out the first five in a number of seconds, depending on the issue and our sense of how long we can afford to deliberate.

But even though the process might seem instantaneous, it still follows the same basic structure:

  • Define the problem or issue.
  • Brainstorm possible options or solutions.
  • Consider the consequences of those options.
  • Decide on the favoured option.
  • Implement the decision.
  • Review and evaluate the outcome.

So, when trying to decide what movie we'd like to see in the cinema this weekend, for example, the first step is to realise that we have to choose what movie will suit us.

Step two is to look at all the movies that are on release, consider what the movies are about and match that with the kind of movies we like, the kind of reviews they have received, and perhaps what movies we have jointly or separately seen already.

This then allows us to move quickly to step three, where we can quickly discount certain movies because we have seen them, they are of a genre that neither of us likes and/or they have actors that neither of us can stand.

We will probably have a shortlist by this stage and then we can discuss how much we think we will or will not enjoy the movies that are left. Other factors such as which cinema is showing the movies and what time the movie is on may also affect our choice.

Step four is to decide which of the possible movie choices that are left open to us is likely to be most enjoyable and showing at a time and venue that suits well. Step five is to go to the movie.

Reviewing the decision is the final step. In many ways it is the most important one, as this is where we learn about the effectiveness of our decision-making. The review will help shape how we make our next decision. Having a post mortem in this way allows us to examine not just the decision that was made -- "I hated the movie -- we should never have gone to it" -- but also the process by which we reached the decision.

For example, it may be that upon discussion you realise that one or other of you has more influence in the decision, that in some way you missed considering all the options, or that you judged the potential outcomes badly.

This is all good because it allows you to refine your decision-making for the next time. That refinement will, hopefully, improve the process and mean that you make better decisions in the first place. It is a classic formula by which we can learn from our mistakes.

Children and teenagers are no different. They also need the opportunity to be involved in decision-making so they can experience what it is like for the outcome of their decisions to equal, exceed or fall short of their expectations.

This is the point where I began the discussion of decision-making. When they are babies we don't let them get involved in decision-making at all. However, as they grow older we need to let them take a greater part in decisions that affect them.

In practice, we might allow toddlers a fixed choice between two options, like which of two pairs of trousers to wear, or which of two types of juice to drink.

This fixed choice reduces the amount of processing they have to do and means that they can't make a completely wild-card choice we don't agree with, such as wearing no trousers for the day.

As they get older we can extend the amount of choice and responsibility they have where the stakes are higher in terms of the kinds of things they are deciding about. For example, by age 12 we might give our children a real say in the secondary school they pick.


Because such a decision is so important, we will probably be explicit in going through the steps of the decision-making process, perhaps writing down the pros and cons of various schools and discussing at length the merits and issues therein.

Here, we can sometimes see another difference in how children/teenagers and adults make decisions. I have described a very rational and reasoned approach to making decisions and yet adults, despite the rationality of what seems on paper to be a good choice, will often fall back on their gut feeling.

It is not a simple preference for being ruled by the head or heart. It is that adults look at the gist of the problem as well as its constituent parts. Think of how many times your child has asked you "why?" a particular decision had to be applied to them. Your answer might often have been "because I say so".

It is as if we don't have a reason for the decision, or when pushed to it, we can't explain our reasoning. This may have been because in fact our gut or instinctual sense of what our child needed to do led to the decision that we made.

To illustrate this further, think of a teenage boy who has an opportunity to have sex but has no condoms. That teenager might reason that the risk of pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease is low and that the short-term fun to be had is worth the risk so he will have unprotected sex.

An adult in a similar situation is less likely to even deliberate. Adults are more likely to go straight to the heart of the situation, which is that when it comes to the risk of disease or pregnancy, nothing is worth risking one's longer-term health or future happiness.

So adults are more likely to make a categorical "no" decision than a thought-through and deliberated-upon "no". It is almost as if when adults make risk decisions the whole decision is greater than the sums of it parts.

In last month's column I described the two different brain systems that operate to allow us to determine and respond to risk. We have a primitive, intuitive, system -- the amygdala -- and a more advanced, analytic, system -- the neocortex. We know that, when faced with danger or risk, they operate at the same time and sometimes in opposition.

We also know that the neocortex uses a lot of short-cuts to help us decide on risk. Unfortunately, those short-cuts can often be wrong and lead to serious misjudgment.

Teenagers, it seems, tend to rely more on their potentially flawed analytic reasoning (neocortex) while adults have come to rely more on their intuition (amygdala). This is not to say that adults can't overrule their instincts; we can. However, it seems that over the years, as we develop and mature, we come to realise that our instincts are right more often than they are wrong.

Teenagers also suffer from a physical immaturity in the frontal lobes of the brain -- the part of the neocortex that controls impulsivity and judgment. This is why experience and maturity are the best predictors of decision-making skill. The true mark of adulthood is that we are always prepared to take responsibility for our decisions. Adults, therefore, need to reinforce accepting the consequences of decisions. This is just one more gift we give our children to prepare them for life.

Irish Independent

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