How to Teach and Practice the Complex Skill of Responsible Decision-making in Family Life…

Do I lie to my parents so that I can attend the biggest social event of the year or take my chances by telling the truth and risk not being allowed to go?

Do I allow my child to attend a party where I’ve never met the friends or parents?

Do I tell my partner about a poor choice made by our child when the child confided in only me and would be upset if anyone else knew?

We face difficult decisions as family members on a regular basis. We often have to make tough decisions with incomplete information, little facts, and limited time. And so do our children and teens. So how do we help them exercise the skill of making healthy, pro-social choices that do no harm?

Responsible decision-making is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as “the ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. The realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.

  • Identifying problems
  • Analyzing situations
  • Solving problems
  • Evaluating
  • Reflecting
  • Ethical responsibility.”

This represents one of the most complex skill sets parents are required to tackle and also, involves our thorniest dilemmas. When we face a problem like the ones above in which family or friends are challenging our comfort, our safety or our principles, we not only deal with the problem at hand. We have to confront our own impulses and desires. We have to deal with our own frustrations and upset and that of other’s close to us. Somehow, we have to manage our relationships and keep them healthy even when we are setting boundaries. And we have consider whether or not it’s a time to go along with other’s wishes or stand our ground. And of course, there are consequences to any of our choices – risks and rewards. 

We are living in a time that is testing our courage. And how we respond is and will be our children’s model for responding to uncertain times. How will we show up as our best selves? As we continue to enjoy a summer of fun, friendship, adventure, and connection, it’s worth considering how we’ll respond when challenges arise.

Ethical decision-making is a full line of inquiry and models from business and leadership literature can become intricate and involved to help support top leaders in companies who must navigate highly complex social structures and make decisions without all of the information needed and with major implications to a full workforce. But we, as leaders in our own families, also require guidance and support as we face ethical dilemmas that test our practical sense and wisdom and rattle our trust as a family. In fact, research confirms that trust-building can be accelerated through consistent ethical behaviors and choices.1

In family life, we don’t have time to deal with complicated decision-making models. Yet we face extremely complex decisions regularly and our family’s trust is predicated upon whether or not we can make those decisions ethically and responsibly. Roger Weissberg, Chief Knowledge Officer of CASEL developed a simple social problem-solving process for schools to use in training children in responsible decision-making. The traffic light model is simple enough that we can use it as a guide in our family life to model adult choices and guide our children in their choices. Dr. Weissberg writes about the model that it promotes “consequential thinking.”2 Children and adults begin to think through the consequences of their actions prior to choosing how to act. And that kind of thinking promotes responsible decision-making. 

This problem-solving model helps families deal with their impulses and with their big feelings, and allows for critical thinking before acting. This involves a host of social and emotional skills including self-awareness (what am I thinking and feeling?), social awareness (what are others thinking and feeling?), self-management (how can I manage my impulse to dive in when there are consequences and risks involved?), relationship skills (how do I preserve my relationships especially when needing to resist social pressures?), and finally, responsible decision-making (how can I do no harm to myself and others). Check out this simple, powerful model with guidance for parents on their own responsible decision-making. In addition, I’ve included ways in which parents can teach their children to use and rely on this process too. Print it out for your refrigerator to use as a helpful guide.


Stop! Calm down and think before you act.

No problem-solving is going to occur, no feelings repaired until all involved calm down. So take the time you and your family members need to calm down. Breathe! It’s critical for us as adults to do this as much as it is critical for our children. When you pause to breathe, you return your brain to full thinking capacity and can feel a sense of satisfaction that you are teaching your children how to do the same in tough situations. 

Teaching children: Proactively practice deep breathing with your child this summer to reinforce your memory to use it and also, teach a valuable skills. You can use easy-to-use teaching methods to help kids practice deep breathing such as bubble blowing, ocean wave or teddy bear belly breathing (see “Understanding Anger” article for descriptions of each). Take a moment for some quiet time in your own spaces. Then…


Caution. Feel. Communicate. Think.

Say the problem and how you feel.

Perhaps you and your partner, after pausing and removing yourself from a tense social situation, take time to discuss your choices.  Share how you are feeling. In this examples above, there were a range of uncomfortable feelings from guilt to frustration to embarrassment. After you’ve accepted that you are feeling this mash-up of emotion, describe to one another your thoughts about what is happening. 

Teaching children: Parents can model this by saying, “I am feeling frustrated that you and your brother are arguing. How are you feeling?” It helps to have a list of feelings at the ready so that if your child struggles with coming up with a feeling, he can pick one off of a list that best represents how he’s feeling. This practice alone will expand his feeling’s vocabulary and he’ll be better equipped the next time to be in touch with and communicate his situation. 

Ask “what are our core principals?” Now, set a positive goal.

Yes, we need to have some core principals as a family that guide our decision-making. Some to consider for our current context might be:

  • We bring difficult decisions to the “we,” or discuss with one another before making a choice that impacts our family.
  • We seek out factual information (from experts and trusted others) to understand risks.
  • We consider each family members unique level of risk (age, physical and mental healthy, neurodiversity).
  • We prioritize safety, health and well-being including both physical and mental health.
  • We consider our impacts to others involved and the ripple effect consequences of our actions on other families.
  • We act in ways that promote trust among our family members.

We need to articulate our values with one another and which ones, despite all pressures, are worth standing up for.  After you’ve become clear on your principles, then how can you use those to set a positive goal for your problem-solving together? For example, “we want all of us to remain mentally and physically healthy with our choice and not to harm others.”

Teaching children: With your child, have them think about what they want for themselves and the others involved. The goal may be as simple as, “I just want to get along with my brother,” or “I want to keep my toys safe.” Weissberg writes that setting a positive goal for kids simply means “How do you want things to end up?”

Think of lots of solutions.

We recently brainstormed as a family and it was the adults who struggled. We skipped to judging our ideas so quickly. So it takes some self-management skills to stop judging and only listen and offer potential ideas. But if we do, we’ll discover solutions we may not have come to otherwise. Take the time with your partner or in a family discussion to lay out many ideas before picking one.

Teaching children: Use a common everyday problem and before jumping to one solution, think of lots. “I could hide my Legos where my brother can’t find them.” “We could agree to ask one another before playing with the others’ toys.” “We could promise to repair anything we break.” Involve all who were a part of the problem to generate solutions. Children who understand there are many choices in a problem situation are less likely to feel trapped into making an unhealthy decision but can step back and examine the options.

Think ahead to the consequences.

“What are the risks if we say no to the family birthday party? What are the risks if we go?” Understanding the risks and potential consequences for our adult decisions may require research or a gathering of information first. How can we show support for our family and maintain healthy relationships? If weighed carefully, we are much more likely to make a responsible choice and one that all family members can trust (even if there have been disagreements) and feel confident it’s been well-considered.

Teaching children: With the everyday conflict, parents can ask, “What if you tried hiding your Legos from your brother? What might happen?” Think through the realistic consequences with your children of their various solutions – both long and short term. “It might work tomorrow. But what happens when you forget in a few weeks and leave them out on your bedroom floor? Then what?” This is a critical step in helping children think through the outcomes of their choices before making them – important practice for later problems when the stakes are higher.

GREEN LIGHT                                                                                                             

Go! Try out your best plan.

If we’ve discussed our feelings and our options as a family, if we considered our values and the potential consequences of our actions, we can proceed as a unified team trusting one another as we proceed. And we can return after the choices have been made to find out how it went and see if the process worked for us.

Teaching children: Maybe your children have agreed to ask one another before they play with the other’s toy. Try it out right away. See how it works. If it does not work, then talk about it and make slight adjustments or decide on another plan altogether that might work better.

Family meetings can be an ideal time to use this Traffic Light model too. Bring a problem to a meeting that concerns everyone. Select a fairly low stakes problem for the first one to raise at a family meeting. Gain practice with the model and with all family members collaborating on a solution. Watch as your skill as a family progresses and you are able to bring hotter issues to the table.

Though each family is experiencing their own unique set of challenges whether financial, health, emotional or social, we all need to consider how our decisions are impacting ourselves, our family, and our community. Every challenge in our lives is an opportunity for learning, a chance for us to hone our own social and emotional skills and build those essential inner resources in our children. May you seize the chance to reflect on those inner strengths and ways in which you can model and build them. Have a safe, healthy and happy summer!


1. Hosmer, L. (1985). Trust: The connecting link between organizational theory and philosophical ethics. Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20(2) 379–403.

2. Weissberg, R.P., Jackson, A.S., & Shriver, T.P. (1993). Promoting positive social development and health practices in young urban adolescents. In M.J. Elias (Ed.). Social decision making and life skills development: Guidelines for middle school educators (pp. 45-77). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publications.

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