Many adults are crippled with indecision when faced with difficult choices. Others, worse yet, make self-destructive choices and repeatedly demonstrate poor judgment. But no one is born with good judgment and the ability to make wise decisions. Good judgment and decision-making skills develop from experience combined with reflection. As one sage noted, “Judgment develops from experience. Good judgment develops from bad experience.”
Your goal is to give your child experience in making decisions, and make sure she has the opportunity to reflect on them and learn. You also want to raise a child who feels good about herself, so that she takes pleasure in making good decisions, rather than bad ones. Research shows that kids who’ve been treated less than kindly get used to feeling bad, so as teens and adults they make decisions that make them feel bad.
How can you help your child develop good judgment?
Practice makes perfect.
Give your child practice making choices even before she begins talking and she’ll never have a problem making decisions. (Who cares if the stripes and flowers clash? She thinks she looks like a rainbow. And if other people can’t figure out that she dressed herself, you don’t really care about their opinion of your parenting, do you?)
Be clear about his span of control.
Emphasize what he has the right to make decisions about, and what areas you as the parent retain the right to exert control over.
“Yes, I guess you may wear your superman outfit again, although you’ve worn it every day this week. You’re in charge of your own clothes. But you’ll need to change before we go to services, because there we dress up to show respect. And you’ll need to brush your teeth. Do you want to do it now or before we leave the house?”
“You can invite your friends for Friday night dinner if you want, but you’re expected to have dinner with the family on Friday night as usual. You can either go to the movies with your friends after dinner on Friday, or on Saturday.”
Consciously help your child develop good judgment.
Many people never develop good judgment because their experience isn’t accompanied by reflection. Help him to make decisions consciously (“How will you decide what piece to play for the recital?”) and to think through the possible repercussions of various choices before he makes them (“I wonder if you’ll feel too pressured about getting your homework done if you add another after-school activity.”)
Just as important, offer her the opportunity to reflect on how her decisions worked out (“I know you were worried about having a threesome this afternoon. Are you glad you invited Clarisse to join you and Ellie for the playdate?”)
Model decision making.
Share how and why you make decisions from the time your child is tiny. (“I think I’ll bring an umbrella on our walk. It looks like rain.” “I’m going to try the salmon; it’s really good for you.” “I’d like our family to help with the drive for school supplies; all children deserve a good education, and this is one way to help.”)
Know that it’s ok for your child to make bad decisions.
He’s still learning about himself as well as about life. It’s just more opportunity for reflection and the development of good judgment, as long as you help him consider afterwards how things could have been different if he had made different choices. Teens have more decision making latitude, and they’re bound to make some bad decisions. Just try to resist the universal impulse to say “I told you so,” and they’ll learn from them.
Give your children control of their own decision-making as it becomes age appropriate.
What’s age appropriate? The list below will give you a frame of reference, but obviously, you’ll need to adapt this chart to your own child and your family circumstances. Remember to slowly build the degree of freedom and responsibility you offer your child, giving them as much help as they need to handle each level until they master it comfortably.
Each section covers a number of years; children in the lowest ages of that range are just beginning to handle the listed items.
Responsibilities Toddlers can be in charge of:
Their own bodies, within the limits of safety and decency.
Cleaning up their own messes. (“That’s ok. Get the paper towels off the counter and let’s clean that milk up. We always clean up our own messes.”)
What to wear (within the limits of appropriate season, safety, and decency.)
Amount of food to eat (You provide the selection. They decide how much.)
Getting the food into their mouths. (Unless they want help.)
What book to read, even if you’re reading to them.
What toys to play with.
What toys to share (others get put away before friends arrive)
When to use the potty. (You offer: “Do you need to use the potty before we leave the house?” But they need to check in with their own body and get to know its signals. Unless you want to be in charge of their toileting for years to come?)
Responsibilities Preschoolers (3-5) can be in charge of:
All of the above, plus:
Their own clothes (Choosing them, within your parameters. Maintaining them, by keeping them in reasonably neat piles by category.)
Their own rooms (within reasonable neatness parameters. They decide what they want on the walls, within reasonable limits. Parents will need to help them organize their stuff and teach them how to clean up.)
How much to eat.
What to eat (within appropriate nutritional guidelines. This only works if you limit accessibility of junk food. It does mean you have to decide what to do when they don’t like what you’ve fixed for dinner. In our house, they have to try one bite, then they can get a yogurt if they want. Yogurts rarely win out.)
Who to play with and when.
Whether to attend social events to which she is invited (excluding mandatory family events.)
Who is allowed in his room.
Responsibilities School-Age Children (6 to 9) can be in charge of:
All of the above, plus:
How to wear their hair (within appropriate grooming standards).
Clearing their place from the table.
Simple chores around the house
How to spend their allowance
Completing their homework
Getting their school backpack ready the night before
How to spend their time (after basic responsibilities like homework are accomplished.)
Whether to play an instrument or take a class.
What sport or physical activity to engage in (Given the research on this, physical activity in our house is non-negotiable, but they get to choose the type.)
Fixing simple food for themselves for snacks and lunch.
Responsibilities Preteens & Tweens (10-12) can be in charge of:
All of the above, plus:
Packing their school lunch
Self-grooming: nails, hair, etc.
Make (or help make) the family contributions for the class bake sale and other events.
Walk with a friend from one point to another within the neighborhood as long as a parent always knows where they are. (We live in New York, and bought our kids cell phones at this age. Their early usage was mostly limited to calling parents.)
Staying alone in the house, with certain rules about who can be with them.
Responsibilities Early Adolescents (13-15) can be in charge of:
All of the above, plus:
Getting themselves up in the morning (you may need to be the backup plan.)
Doing their own laundry (eliminates you feeling like the maid when they suddenly need a certain item.)
Temporary changes in appearance (i.e., permanent tattoos are out in my family till they’re eighteen, but temporary ones are their choice. Piercings are discussed on an as-requested basis, and are discouraged because of the risk of infection and permanent scarring.)
Riding the bus and subway (some families require that this be with a friend.)
Going to movies with friends.
Earning spending money by babysitting or other jobs.
Budgeting their own spending.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.