When Children Make Decisions

We were talking with a group of friends recently about some of the problems of raising children. At one point someone said, “It’s hard for me to give my children their free agency because I’m afraid they’ll abuse it.” In the conversation that followed, several in the group agreed, giving examples from their own families.

Almost all parents could make a long list of ways their children abuse free agency: An eight-year-old is permitted to play with a friend if she agrees to be home by 4:00; she doesn’t return until 6:30. A teenager is allowed to take the family car providing he drives carefully; but he and some friends start “goofing off” and there is an accident. A four-year-old is told he can play with his paints if he stays at the kitchen table; instead he goes into the living room and spills paint on the carpet.

Problems often arise when a child’s independence isn’t matched by his level of responsibility. How to keep the two in balance is a difficult dilemma we face as parents. We know our children must learn to become independent; eventually they will be making their own decisions with little influence from us. But they must also learn to make decisions responsibly, and hopefully become good citizens and committed church members.

Effective family leadership can bring about a balance between independence and responsibility. But success in a family is very difficult to evaluate. A parent may be considered successful too early in the game, simply because the home seems to run smoothly and the children are neat and clean when in public. It is really only as our children become mature and fulfill righteous roles that our success as parents can begin to be measured.

Among the principles parents can use to help children make responsible decisions are the following.

Agency. In the scriptures we are told: “Ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.” (Hel. 14:30.) God knew that a life with freedom of choice would be risky and dangerous for us, whom he loved so much. But he also knew that the only way we could learn and grow would be to give us guidelines and then let us make our own decisions, our own mistakes.

The same dilemma faces us as parents. If we expect to lead our children into adulthood as responsible citizens with testimonies of the gospel, we must teach them correctly and then let them act for themselves.

Step by Step. One thing that makes family leadership so difficult is that as our children grow, we need to keep changing the amount of freedom we give them. For example, it is too dangerous to let a two-year-old cross a busy street alone, but in normal circumstances, we would seriously hinder a fourteen-year-old’s progress if we insisted on walking him to school each day. Leading our children in the proper use of their agency doesn’t mean giving them total freedom and letting them do anything they want. We all learn best by learning a little bit at a time, “line upon line, precept upon precept.” (D&C 98:12)

Teaching children to be responsible with money is a good example of this. A friend told us of an experience he had with his college freshman daughter, who was living away from home for the first time. She kept getting notices from the bank that her checking account was overdrawn. Finally, when she called requesting more money, her father asked, “Why is your account overdrawn so often?”

She replied, “I can’t understand it. I still have plenty of checks in my checkbook—so how could I be out of money?”

It’s hard to believe that a person of that age could be so naive about how checking accounts work. Unfortunately, she was having to learn all at once, instead of a step at a time.

Positive Feedback. Giving positive feedback isn’t a new idea, but it’s surprising how often we all need to be reminded of it. When children first try to do something, they may not do it very well—whether it’s washing dishes, making a bed, or hitting a baseball. We need to be careful not to be too critical of those early efforts. When children are told they are not doing a good job, they are likely to doubt their abilities and may even come to believe they can’t do anything well. While it is sometimes hard, we should strive to see the positive in what our children do.

For instance, we are pleased with the progress our children are making in their schoolwork. For the most part they seem to enjoy school and work hard at learning. This is due to some natural ability perhaps; but we hope it is also due to the response we’ve made to their efforts. We let them know we value education by praising their efforts, asking them about what’s going on in school, taking time to look at papers they bring home, and going to school to support their activities. When going over schoolwork, we acknowledge the fifteen words spelled correctly, and afterward offer to help them learn those they’ve missed. As we focus on their successes, it seems their self esteem grows and they try a little harder the next time.

Natural Consequences. Rather than giving a lot of negative feedback, we are trying to let our children learn from the natural results of their behavior. We knew a family whose children decided they wanted to take their own lunches to school. The mother became very frustrated before two weeks were up because she was constantly receiving a call from one child or another asking, “Could you bring me my lunch Mom? I think I left it by the back door.” Finally she told them she was through taking lunches to school for them. They called a few more times but soon stopped.

Then the kids brought home I.O.U.s—they had been borrowing from friends when they forgot, or the school secretary was letting them eat school lunch, keeping track of their lunchroom debt. The mother called the school secretary and talked with the children’s friends, asking them to help her children become responsible for their own lunches by not helping them. When they went hungry a few times, they soon learned to remember, and their lapses thereafter were few and far between.

Of course, we must restrain our children if the natural consequences of their actions may be harmful; we can’t let them act for themselves if they are in real danger. They need to be helped through those kinds of decisions until they are mature enough to deal with them alone.

Listen before You Leap. When children try things that violate family rules, action needs to be taken. But we have learned to approach these situations with caution. For example, shortly after one of our daughters turned sixteen she stayed out too late one night. We were very concerned, and determined to prevent a reoccurrence of such behavior in the future.

However, we decided to “count 10” and not confront her immediately or impose a harsh punishment right away. Rather, we sat down with her and asked for her side of the story. In the discussion she admitted she had stayed out too late and felt that some kind of punishment was appropriate. It was also clear that she really didn’t know what our expectations were regarding the time she should be home. We had a definite curfew in mind, but hadn’t made it clear to her. Together we discussed an appropriate time for her to be home and a penalty for violating the curfew. We all felt much more satisfied with the resolution of the problem than we had in the past, when in similar cases we had simply come down hard on a child who was in error.

In this situation, as in others, we have found how much better it is to involve our children in the decision-making process. When we have a problem with a child, we talk it over with her and ask her help in solving it. Both parents and child contribute ideas, and we reach a mutually acceptable solution. When the child is involved, she is much more committed to making the decision work. Some parents are afraid their children won’t be reasonable in their demands. But that hasn’t been our experience. When we have discussed topics, such as bedtime or household chores, the children have usually proposed solutions that have been acceptable to us as parents.

This approach usually takes more time, but we try to remember each time that we’re not just trying to solve the problem of the moment, but to develop independent and responsible family members. The family council is an excellent arena for discussing problems that affect several family members. (See Ensign, Feb. 1982, Rex W. Allred, “Support Your Local Family Council,” pp. 50–52.)

Example. Parental example is the big teacher. It even outweighs what we say. Thus, our words either reinforce our actions or our actions tend to nullify the impact of our words. We cannot really hope to be successful leaders in our family if our performance doesn’t match our principles.

The wonderful/frustrating thing about children is that just when you’re feeling a little satisfaction in one area, they make you feel discouraged in another. Why do they seem to take so long to become responsible in even small areas? And even when they do make progress with some aspect of their growing up, it’s no sign they’ve made progress elsewhere as well.

Learning and growing is a very uneven process—and while patience is a virtue, it surely doesn’t come easily for us. But learning to lead our children takes not only a great deal of patience, but effort and love as well.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “When Children Make Decisions” you may wish to discuss some of the following ideas as parents.

1. Discuss situations in which your children have seemed to abuse their free agency. What could you as parents have done in those cases to teach them to act more responsibly?

2. The author says that “as our children grow, we need to keep changing the amount of freedom we give them.” What kinds of rules regarding independence would currently be appropriate for each of your children?

3. Consider positive things that each of your children are doing. Discuss ways to compliment and encourage them.

4. Are there situations in your family in which natural consequences could safely teach your children more effectively than your negative feedback? Discuss how you will respond as these situations arise in the future.

5. If you haven’t already done so, consider having parent-to-child chats with each of your children to make joint decisions about behavior.

[photo] Photography by Jed A. Clark

Paul Harold Thompson, professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University, serves as second counselor in the BYU Ninth Stake presidency. His wife, Carolyn L. Thompson, is Relief Society homemaking leader in their Provo, Utah, ward. The couple have six children and one foster child.