Decision-Making 101: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Kids

Parents were appointed by God and the universe to embarrass their kids, get in their faces about homework, check up on their internet use, and make sure their clothes cover essential parts of the body.

After all, we need to give their brains and bodies a chance to mature before handing over decision-making choices their frontal lobes can’t really handle until, say, age 25.

But isn’t making decisions part of growing up? And how can parents help kids make the right ones?

Sometimes helping kids make choices is about backing off. Sometimes it’s about getting up-close and personal.

Here are five basic concepts to help steer you in the right direction.

1. Don’t care more about your kids’ choices than they do.

I handed my five-year-old grandson two sticker books. “You decide which one you want for yourself, and which one to give your sister,” I said.

The idea pleased him. He got to decide. Sister is two, and was sleeping at the time.

He picked farms for himself, kitty cats for his sister.  Just as I predicted.

But over the next few days he gravitated toward the cats. “That one belongs to your sister,” I reminded. “You’ll have to ask her first.”

“But I want to play with it,” he said, with more than a twinge of regret.

We worked in an activity book I bought for him, writing numbers and matching. But he still went back to the family

“It was your choice, remember? You were the one who decided which book to give your sister.”

His face contorted. Sadness spilled all over the floor. “I made the wrong decision!” he wailed.

I might have run to the store and bought him a sticker book like his sister’s. But I didn’t.

He’s beginning to understand that not all decisions turn out the way we want, and getting children used to a little tolerable stress is actually good for them. They need to stretch their capacity for it as they get older. Not every child can win the spelling bee, become a member of the student council, or get the lead in the school play.

I’ve heard parents sway children’s decisions to satisfy their own materialistic self-interest. Here’s a scenario: Seven-year-old Frannie gets an invitation to Micah’s birthday party. A day later, she gets one from Jacob. Their parties are on the same day.

Mom: “Have you decided which party you want to go to?”

Frannie: “Micah’s, of course.”

Mom: “Why ‘of course?’ I thought you liked Jacob.”

Frannie: “Yeah, but Micah’s my friend.  Besides, I already told him I would go.”

Mom: “I heard that Jacob’s parents are renting a bounce house and having the party catered.”

Frannie:  “But I already told Micah.”

Mom: “I’ll bet more people are going to Jacob’s party. It’ll be so much fun.”

Frannie:  “All right. If you want me to go to Jacob’s party, I’ll go.”

Frannie is learning that life is about pleasing her mother. Not herself. And that’s well.. you know, warped. Not only that, but she’s learning how to manipulate people, and go back on her word.

So do your kid a favor and stop caring so much.

2. Some of your children’s decisions will be terrible. Be supportive anyway.

The “no backsies” rule comes as a rude awakening to most children. But in life, we all experience irreversible decisions we must learn to live with.

The first one usually happens after a bad trade: A purple unicorn for a Derek Jeter Bobblehead.

When Mom tromps over to the neighbor’s house and insists on exchanging the merchandise, she’s telling her kid that a seven-year-old’s decision doesn’t count.

So Aunt Susie brought the damn unicorn all the way from Montpelier.


Because after the purple unicorn it’ll be “I know I wanted to go to camp but will you please come pick me up because I hate this place and the food is awful.” And after that, it’ll be something else, probably a lot worse than camp. Like picking a college roommate who has no idea what to do with a vacuum cleaner.

Do you really want to play repairman for the rest of your life?

Get cozy with a the concept of empathy. It means “the ability to share and understand the feelings of another.”

Here’s how it works: You might want to scream into the phone: “Hell no, I’m not driving five hours into the boondocks to pick you up! You wanted to go to rock climbing camp, now you’re there!”

But resist the urge.  Here’s what you say: “I know camp is different than you expected. Making friends can be hard at first. Let’s think together what might help.”

Empathy. It’s being supportive even if you can’t do much about it.

3. Sometimes children need time to make a decision. Don’t rush them.

If it weren’t for Mrs. Birch the candy lady, the kids in my neighborhood might have grown up to be a bunch of wishy-washy twits.

Mrs. Birch lived across from the volunteer fire station in a house painted the same slate-gray as her candy shop, and she was old. So old that we often had to wake her up from a nap so she’d open the store. It was one of those places that doesn’t exist anymore, with a glass-windowed case full of mind-numbing delights.

“How much do you have?” she asks.

A sweaty nickel appears on the glass counter.

“I’ll have one of those.”

(Looking, choosing.)

“And I’ll take one of …um…those.”

(Biting lower lip.)

“And one of… umm…I think one of …”

(Jabs index finger at glass.)


“You still have two more, Dearie,” the woman says in a brogue as thick as  Scottish oatmeal.

Mary Janes, root beer barrels, rainbow coconut candy and Grade-A chocolates spill from boxes no bigger that a sheet of paper. Tootsie Rolls,  blue-ice candies, licorice sticks, and caramels bring up the back row.

Kid in candy store

“Now…let me see…”

(A bell tinkles and two more kids enter the store. ..)

“I think I will take two of those.”

“All right, now!

Mrs. Birch folds down the top of a small white bag and hands it across the counter.

The elderly woman seemed kind. And that’s what mattered.  She also moved like a snail.

So give your kids time to decide things. Don’t be in such a hurry.

4. Let them go with their “gut.”

If a particular choice  “feels” right to your child, don’t make him second guess himself. The exceptions to this are sleeping out in snowstorms and trying out for America’s Next Top Model. Those require a bit of consultation.

This is crucial. When parents get in the way of that weird connection kids have with the universe, it messes with a child’s ability to listen to his inner voice – something most adults wish they could still do, like making cootie catchers: without practice, the magic wears off in about fifth grade.

If your daughter doesn’t want to spend the night at Cousin Lucy’s house, don’t make her. It’s her innate wisdom telling her not to.

If she picks out Dora the Explorer sheets, and you wanted her to sleep on Cinderella,  just back off.  Do you want her coming home in twenty years telling you she’s all screwed up because you made her get the pink ones? Do you really want that on your conscience?

cootie catchers

5. Not all decisions belong to children.

I am talking about decisions like what you’re having for supper. What time is “bedtime.” The amount of TV they get to watch.

Kids should not get to decide these things.

When you step up to the plate and manage daily routine, your kids will learn to trust you more than you can possibly imagine. And trust makes kids secure.

And only when they’re older, say eight or nine, should they have a say in what movies they watch and whose house they get to play at.

Go with me here. I raised four kids.

Kids of four and five need to know how to dial 911 in case you are on the floor writhing in pain. They do not need a cell phone of their own to take to kindergarten.

You decide when they get to have their own phone based on maturity and level of responsibility. You decide the curfew.

Remember, you are the parent for a reason.  So be the parent. There is no substitute for you.  FFG

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *