Raising Confident Decision-Makers

Age-by-age tips to help encourage good decision making from toddlerhood through the teen years.
Shutterstock 524744197

Whether you’re helping your toddler select a snack or your teenager choose a college, guiding good decisions is central to parenting. But raising kids who make confident, wise choices can seem like a challenge — especially when your 8-year-old insists on wearing shorts in freezing weather, or your middle-schooler repeatedly chooses junk food over veggies.

Rest assured that an occasional poor choice is normal, even expected. In fact, making bad decisions is an important way for children to learn. But it’s also possible to encourage good decision-making, from toddlerhood through the teen years. Here are age-by-age tips for helping kids choose well.

Early Years

Mirror, Mirror

For parents of toddlers and preschoolers, encouraging freedom of choice is a well-known parenting rule of thumb. Asking your child whether he’d like water or milk, or whether he’d like to wear the green shirt or the blue shirt, helps him exercise decision-making muscles, fosters confidence and squashes power struggles. Many parents, however, don’t know that simply mirroring a child’s statements can also help build and reinforce decision-making confidence, says Aida Vazin, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California. To put this into practice, listen for your little one’s statements about his opinions, then reflect those statements back to him without embellishment.

“For example, if a child says ‘I like green,’ the parent should repeat in a very matter-of-fact tone, ‘you like green,’ without turning the statement into a question,” Vazin says. “This gives the child the feeling of being heard and understood, and highlights the choices the child is already making — and it’s a great confidence-booster for the child.”

Elementary Years

Balancing Act

Grade-schoolers are beginning to want more control over their daily lives, but many parents struggle to let go of the decision-making reigns, which can lead to power struggles. It’s all about balance. Research suggests that a balance between independent decision-making and parental authority yields better outcomes for kids.

“As a parent, I often remind myself that it's my kids' job to become more independent from me,” says Meg Hill, a licensed professional counselor and parenting coach in Raleigh. “Between the ages of 6 and 12, it's important for parents to increase responsibility along with choices, within a framework.”

A child could begin to make her own lunches, selecting from a checklist of healthy foods provided by the parent. Other decision-making situations could be choosing which after-school activities to pursue, or deciding whether to do chores before or after school. Don’t let go of the reigns completely, though.

“Parents should still have significant oversight of time management, as well as online activity,” Hill says.

Teen Years

Cause and Effect

Flexing decision-making muscles helps teens grow stronger, so making choices on a regular basis is vital for this age group. Parents can foster long-term learning and growth by helping teenagers begin to recognize connections between present-day choices and future results. Encourage this type of personal reflection with a little Greek philosophy.

“For teenagers, the best approach to really boost decision-making skills is to do what’s called Socratic questioning: Asking questions that are neutral and do not give judgment,” Vazin says. “For example: ‘What was important for you about that decision?’ or ‘What have you learned from this experience?’ Rather then shaming, the parents are teaching the core life skill of understanding results and consequences of actions.”

When teens begin looking toward the future, more confident decisions will emerge — and your teen might develop a love of philosophy in the process.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.