Responsible Decision Making
I heard the news today, oh boy…
– “A Day in the Life,” The Beatles
When national or local news reports a situation in which a person has made a harmful choice effecting children’s lives, I begin to go down the black hole of worry. The dangers that my son faces as he goes about his daily life can seem frightening and at times overwhelming. Also each day our children travel through a digital global environment that is an unpredictable territory promoting impulsive responses with the click of a mouse. Because there is so much that remains out of my control, I choose to refocus my energies on how I can prepare my child to respond in any situation in a way that demonstrates care and concern for himself and others and does no harm. I want him to be prepared with the decision making skills to think through his actions in advance and how they might effect others and the environment around him when I am not there to guide him.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning defines responsible decision making as “the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on considerations of ethical standards, safety concerns, the realistic evaluation of the consequences that stem from actions and the well-being of self and others.”1 And what makes a decision responsible? There are many complex theories on how we develop our sense of ethics. One such theory by respected educational philosopher, Nel Noddings, explains that caring is not an outcome of responsible decision making, but begins in utero as the foundational seed, a precondition.2 Each time a child is shown care, they are forming their sense of worthiness. “Another person is focused on my needs and desires and I am worthy of that attention,” is the underlying message sent each time a parent shows care.
Incidents of great harm are not typically caused by an individual waking up one day angry at the world. We know they are a result of numerous small moments in life that add up to a person’s sense of identity and worth or lack of it. The child who acts as a bully on the playground is expressing hurts he or she struggles to contain. And in turn, often the bullied child becomes the bully as he act out in self-protection. Complicated issues evolve over the course of a child’s growth and development in which they will need to make their own choices. Do I trust this adult? Do I go along with my friends? What should I do if I witness harm but am not yet involved myself?
There are simple ways that we can work on responsible decision making with our children. Small, consistent moments of practice and reflection over time will help fine-tune a child’s ability to think through consequences and the effects of various choices and actions. A child doesn’t “Just say no to drugs,” without a great many small experiences of saying no to minor issues of concern. Typically children do not act as “upstanders,” sticking up for their friends who are being bullied, unless they have received coaching, practice and support for doing so. Here are some ways you can reflect on your relationship with your children and how you might incorporate practice, reflection and coaching on responsible decision making.
Articulate your love and acceptance for the child in the midst of poor choices. When children have made a mistake or a choice that caused harm and are being reprimanded, they are unable to distinguish between the action and their own worthiness as a person. It is an important teaching opportunity – birth through young adulthood – to assure them of your unconditional love no matter what choices they make. Children who do not have a sense of love and belonging and consistently feel bad about who they are tend to also consistently make poor choices to reinforce that notion. If you see a pattern with your child in which they are making poor choices over and over again and not correcting them, consider whether they have heard the message enough and believe that they are worthy and loved. Of course, the action is not acceptable and we are quick to point that out. But next time your child makes a mistake, also take it as an opportunity to reinforce their worthiness. Though challenging particularly when your child has done something that you feel is disappointing or even shameful, this one step will go farther toward helping your child make positive choices than any other.
Reflect on your language. Often negative language patterns will creep into our conversations with our children and catch us unaware. Recall that the language you use helps shape a child’s sense of identity. They understand themselves through your reflections. “Are you being lazy again?” might seem like an inane, harmless comment late on a Saturday morning but becomes a self defining word in a child’s head. So too, sarcasm is misunderstood by children since the meaning and the words are in opposition. Children realize the words are not authentic but hide a meaning that can be hurtful. Take a few days or even a week to heighten your awareness of your language with your children. Jot down on a note pad what judgement words are part of your lexicon. Realize that they are also becoming a part of your child’s vocabulary of “what I know about myself.” What judgment words do you use? How can you catch yourself? What do you really want to say to your child about who they are? Jot those down and enter those words into conversation. “I notice you have quite an imagination when you sit down with a blank sheet of paper.” And how can you reframe those judgment phrases? Instead of labeling the child “lazy,” you might say, “It’s late morning. I missed seeing you earlier.” Brene Brown in her book, Daring Greatly3 invokes a conversation from the Harry Potter books that applies here so well. Sirius, Harry’s adult mentor and friend tells him,
You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are. 4
Ask good questions. “Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve,” wrote Roger Lewin. As you observe situations, relay family stories or talk about your day, focus on open-ended questions that help your child reflect on decisions made. “Ginny received a demerit today at recess. What choices did she make? What was Ginny thinking when she made that choice? What did she want? Did she get it? How did her choice effect other children around her? How did it effect the teachers? Will there be any lasting effects you could notice tomorrow when you return to school? What other choices could she have made?” After the emotions have calmed, misbehaviors that you and your child witness or ones that your child commits can be a good chance for reflection. But also it helps to question daily situations that might be taken for granted to expand your child’s thinking. Instead of “What do you want to play next?” you might say, “How many different activities can we think of to play?”
Talk about your own thought process. Are you debating over something? Share some of your thinking with your child. “I’m not sure I want to go into business with a friend. I’m worried it will hurt our friendship. But on the positive side, I do think we balance each others’ skills.” Hearing your own thought process will provide a model for weighing pros and cons and thinking through situations before acting.
Initiate family problem solving. If there is an issue that affects the whole family, use it as a chance to practice problem solving together. An enjoyable topic such as “Where should we go for our family vacation this summer?” could be the perfect chance to brainstorm numerous ideas and consider the pros and cons of each one. There are many structures and strategies for problem solving but they all boil down to the same steps. Define the problem. Articulate the feelings involved. Brainstorm solutions. Evaluate the pros and cons. Pick one all can agree upon. Try it. Evaluate whether or not it worked. If it didn’t, go back to your solution ideas and pick a different one to try.
Look for ways to show care. Find small and regular ways to show care at home, at school and in your neighborhood. Your children’s involvement in house cleaning, chores or recycling all show care of your household. Picking up trash on your walk to school or in the local park shows care of and responsibility for your environment. When planning school parties or events, think about how you can show care at your school. Thank the school secretaries for their hard work with a card or a treat. Work together on planting flowers to beautify the grounds.
Use and discuss consequences. There are many opportunities throughout the course of the week to discuss consequences if you look for them. “What do you think will happen if you do not complete your homework?” Raising questions about predicting outcomes can initiate thinking in a young person about causes and effects. Also in your discipline toolbox, using logical consequences for misbehaviors is another way to generate that thinking. “You threw your toy across the room and it broke. We will try to fix it but it could be that the toy is not usable anymore. What could help you next time you feel like throwing a toy?”
Discuss children’s and young adult literature. “Responsible or irresponsible decision making are a central themes of most great literature,” says forty-year veteran high school teacher, Linda Smith. In any given story, discuss the following questions and allow your child to think about her responses.
What was the character thinking before the action?
What was the character feeling?
What did the character want to have happen? What was the motivation?
How did she consider the effect on others or on the environment?
Why did she make the decision to act the way she did?
Was the outcome what she had hoped?
What other decisions could she have made? What effects would another decision have on others?
The following are a few recommendations of children’s books that are particularly suited to discussing responsible decision making.
Picture Book Recommendations
Curious George books by H.A. Rey – The plot with all of these books involves the monkey George being curious and making a sometimes impulsive choice with disastrous consequences. However, George always finds a way to repair the damage, make things right again and, sometimes, comes out looking like a hero.
The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler – The rhythm of the language alone is captivating. The story is about an unlikely friendship between a snail and whale and their interdependence. Ultimately, the tiny snail is able to save the giant whale through his creativity and caring.
Young Adult Literature Recommendations
Choose Your Own Adventure – There are numerous adventure books that allow the reader to offer choices throughout the book. “If the character enters the cave, go to page 37. If the character runs around the outside of the cave, go to page 45.” These are fun and exciting ways for your tween-age child to explore choices and outcomes.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This classic Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a coming of age story in which Scout Finch watches her father, Atticus make courageous choices that ripple throughout the community combating racism and injustice.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding – This is another classic novel that explores the issues of responsible decision making. Ordinary small boys are stranded on an island and the basic worries of their previous home life, like homework, become inconsequential. They deal with basic survival issues and power struggles and each make choices that will determine whether they live or die.
When you begin to worry about the dangers in your child’s world, refocus that energy into action. Do something about it by preparing your children. You can give them valuable practice in making decisions that will strengthen relationships and contribute to community life. And we will all benefit.
1 Weissberg, R. P. & Cascarino, J (2013). Academic learning + social-emotional learning = national priority. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (2): 8-13.
2 Noddings, N. (2002a) Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.
3 Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring Greatly; How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
4 Rowling, J.K. (2001). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.