With the vast amounts of information available in the world today, it is impossible for parents to teach children everything. But they can teach them the gospel, and they can train them in the ways to obtain information and make decisions.
Our first responsibility in teaching children to make decisions is to teach them right from wrong. Children need to know that certain choices are expected of them if they desire to serve their Heavenly Father—marrying in the temple, paying tithing, and (for young men) serving a mission, for example. They also need to have a “moral yardstick” by which to measure some of the dilemmas they may face in life—should I obey my supervisor and lie for him, or is honesty more important?
Beyond teaching our children the principles of the gospel, we need to teach them the mechanics of decision-making so they will be able to make the other major decisions they will face as they grow up. For example, a teenager will have a hard time choosing a career if he has never explored the options or been given the opportunity to work. Likewise, he will have a hard time making financial decisions if he has not been taught the principles of money management.
In D&C 9:8 the Lord told Oliver Cowdery to first study a problem out in his mind and then make a decision based on his study. The same procedure could be adopted by anyone making a decision. Studying a problem out in our mind means that we consider alternatives and consequences. Perhaps a child is told she can have anything she wants for dinner on her birthday. To help her see the alternatives, you may have to sit down with her and have her list her favorite meals, choosing the one she would most like to have on that day.
An older child may have difficulty in deciding what classes to register for in school. If he has been taught well, he will be able to list the classes he would like to take and decide among those classes based on his future career plans, his immediate interests, his class load, and his abilities. A child who has been taught at a young age to analyze decisions will be better able to handle decisions later in life.
In making some decisions, particularly the important ones, we will want to ask Heavenly Father if our decision is right. Elder Marion G. Romney said, “Now, I tell you that you can make every decision in your life correctly if you can learn to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This you can do if you will discipline yourself to yield your own feelings to the promptings of the spirit.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1961, p. 947.)
Children need to know that our Father in Heaven can help them make decisions. And they also need to learn to recognize the confirming feelings of the Spirit. The Lord told Oliver Cowdery that he would receive the “spirit of revelation,” which would tell him in his “mind and in [his] heart, by the Holy Ghost” (D&C 8:2–3) the answers he desired. He was also told that the Lord would “speak peace to [his] mind concerning the matter.” (D&C 6:23.) Many of our own decisions, if correctly made, will receive this same kind of confirmation. It will make “sense” in our minds and will “feel good” in our hearts. And we will have a feeling of peace. A daughter who chooses to keep the Sabbath day holy by not attending a rock concert with her friends can know in her mind that she is keeping the commandments of God; she can feel comfort in her heart; and she can know the peace that comes from making the right decision even though she may be ridiculed by her friends.
As our children have these experiences, we can teach them to use these criteria to recognize that they have made a correct choice. The more able they are to recognize spiritual confirmation, the better they will be able to make their own decisions. They will learn to rely more on the Lord and his guidance than on their parents, friends, or leaders.
While our children do need to learn to rely on the Lord, they also need to know that they have been given agency in governing their lives. Elder Boyd K. Packer has commented: “We often find … people who will pray with great exertion over matters that they are free to decide for themselves. Suppose, if you will, that a couple had money available to build a house. Suppose they had prayed endlessly over whether they should build an Early American style, a ranch style, modern-style architecture, or perhaps a Mediterranean style. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps the Lord just plain doesn’t care? Let them build what they want to build. It’s their choice. In many things we can do just what we want.” (Speeches of the Year, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1975, pp. 357–58.)
The Lord is concerned that we do right, that we live our lives purely and in accordance with his will. He is probably not too concerned with the minor details. We can help our children learn this distinction when we do not always solve their problems for them. We may feel free to help them see aspects of the problem they may not have seen before, but it might be good sometimes to say, “Now, the decision is yours. I will support you in it.”
Finally, after making and acting on a decision, we should evaluate its results. Parents should teach each child to ask himself if the consequences of his decision were what he expected. Did he really enjoy spending all his time practicing for little league baseball? Did she feel comfortable in the clothes she wore to school? When children have looked carefully at the consequences of their decisions, they may not be so eager to wear the mismatched clothes next week or to sign up for baseball next season.
Even if a child knows all the processes of decision making, he will not learn to make good decisions unless he has to make some. We can be a great help to our children by letting them make decisions when they are ready. It is not always easy to tell when a child is able to make a responsible decision. One father uses the following guideline: “We tell them that when they do know what is right and what is wrong, then they are capable of making the right decisions. Sometimes the right choice isn’t the one they want to make, but they know what they should do. And if the choice is one where they really don’t know what’s right and wrong, then we figure they aren’t yet ready to make that decision for themselves.” (Ensign, July 1978, p. 47.)
It might be good to let children begin making their own decisions in areas of little consequence—the arrangement of their room, the kind of sandwich they want for lunch, the type of ice-cream cone they want. It will not hurt them to tire of a poorly planned room or to order an ice-cream cone of a flavor they can’t stand. But it will teach them to be a little more careful in their choices and to consider the outcome more fully. Then, as time goes on, gradually let them work into more responsible decisions—the clothes they’ll buy, for example.
Sometimes children balk at making decisions. They are afraid they will make the wrong choice and do not want to be responsible for it. They would rather have you decide and then be able to blame you if things go wrong. But just because children don’t want to make decisions doesn’t mean they can’t, and they should still be given the opportunity.
One young woman tells of a decision she had to make early in her life. “I had been invited to a birthday party of a very close friend, and I wanted to go. But Primary was that same day. I didn’t know what to do, so I asked my mother to tell me. I think I wanted her to say I had to go to Primary, so I could tell my friend that my mean mom wouldn’t let me come. All my mother said was, ‘You know what is right. This is a decision you can make by yourself.’ Well, I agonized over it for hours, and finally decided to go to Primary. I told my friend my feelings and she understood. She even saved me some cake from her party.”
The young girl in this story was capable of making a decision, and she was allowed to make it.
Children who grow up making their own decisions become responsible adults. One set of parents asked their son why he was often approached by both youth and adults for help in solving problems. He responded that he knew how to make decisions. “‘Since I was very young, you have forced me to make decisions—choose my own clothing, arrange my furniture, spend my money.’”
“‘Did you like that?’
“‘No, I hated it,’ he grinned, ‘but I did learn how to decide.’” (Ensign, Apr. 1978, p. 18.)
Although parents should allow children to make decisions, they should not withdraw their counsel. Sometimes parents can give a child needed insight that will help in the decision. One young college graduate was trying to decide whether to go to law school or to pursue her training in secondary education. In talking it over with her parents, her father said, “I know you’d love the experience of law school. You’ve always enjoyed that type of thinking and challenge. But would you enjoy practicing law?” Her father did not tell her what to do. He simply asked a question which enabled her to see the consequences of her choice more clearly.
We all benefit from sharing our ideas and feelings with another person. Often, another’s insight can give us information we need in order to make a wise choice. As parents, we should not deny our children that help.
Although parents can and should advise children if necessary, once a child has made a decision, they should let him experience the consequences. Be willing to let him make mistakes, especially if the mistakes will not hurt him eternally. If a son has saved enough money to attend a summer camp but then spends part of that money to go to a show and out to eat with his friends, it would be better to have him miss the camp than to give him the necessary money. Or if a daughter who has known for several weeks that a report was due in her history class suddenly comes to you in tears the night before, it would not help her for you to do the report for her or to call her teacher asking for a reprieve. Similarly, if you have told one of your children he can go somewhere with his friends after he has cleaned his room and he doesn’t clean it, he should not be allowed to go just because his friends have arrived, even if he promises to clean it later. In each of these instances the parents would deny their children the opportunity to learn from their mistake.
Sometimes it is frightening to let children make choices and to see them suffer the consequences, but we should not override their decisions. If there is a possibility that the child could make a choice that may hurt him eternally or which you simply cannot accept, then he should not be given that choice. For example, it may be a given family rule that teenagers do not date until they are sixteen or that they do not drive until they have a driver’s license. Children are not given the choice in these decisions. Many teenagers who are capable and desirous of making righteous choices still need their parents’ rules as a backup when they are faced with peer pressure that they might not be able to resist. We should not let them down when they need us.
Parents should, however, be careful to keep these fixed rules to a minimum, mainly centered in Church standards, especially with older teenagers. And these rules work best if they have been understood from the time the child is young.
One mother tells of how she came to understand which decisions she should leave to her children when her son wanted to play football. She and her husband had taught their children that playing football was dangerous and not allowed. The sons had never questioned this advice until one day one son was told by his coach that he was a natural player. “It became a really emotional thing with him. As his father and I discussed it with him, he got so upset that he was shaking. … Dean and I looked at each other; … we’d never had a disagreement like that with any of our children.
“So when we knelt down for our personal prayers, we both prayed about it. … [And, of course, all parents can pray for this kind of guidance.]
“When we got up from our prayers, we … both had been given the same answer, that this was his decision, not ours. And so the next morning Dean took him into the parlor and shut the doors and explained to him that we had decided it was his decision after all. He knew how we felt—that we weren’t just trying to spoil his fun, but that football was dangerous and we were afraid for him—but we were leaving it up to him.
“He came out of the room just smiling, and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this is really worth it.’ I was still afraid he might end up with a trick knee or something, but our relationship was much more important, because if we lost him over football, we might have no influence over him when he had to decide about chastity or a mission or Church activity.
“Of course, he decided to play football. And we supported him in his decision.” (Ensign, July 1978, p. 49.)
As children get older and are more capable of making important decisions, we will want to include them in many of the “policy” decisions which affect their lives—when they can drive the car, how late they can stay out, what kind of parties and school functions they will attend, and so forth. This teaches them that we respect their decision and their right to help set the course for their lives. It also gives them a place to openly discuss problems for which they may need and desire our counsel.
“Once our children grow up, their adult lives will be full of decisions that have long-lasting, even eternal consequence. At some point they have to begin making those vital decisions. Will they be ready? If they’ve had practice in decision making, they’ll be better prepared than if they haven’t. …
“And a son or daughter who freely chooses righteousness is the greatest reward a parent can have.” (Ensign, July 1978, p. 47.)