Setting Teens up for Wise Decision-Making

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The teen years include many decisions that can have a significant impact on a child’s future, and the stakes are a lot higher than they were in the elementary years. However, if we make all their decisions for our teens, we can potentially do more harm than good.

To avoid this, my husband and I have allowed our children to choose their own high school and college classes, with discussion but very little interference from us. We talked with them about their objectives and options, but pretty much left the final decisions up to them. We have no regrets about that.

Do you know what happens when a person is overly managed, whether by a parent, a spouse, or an employer—or by anyone else, for that matter? The closer the relationship, the greater the collateral damage. One result is they become increasingly less able to make their own decisions. They’re always looking over their shoulder, in fear, hesitation, or in debilitating servitude. They struggle to make even the smallest decisions, from what-do-I-have-for-dinner to what-should-be-my-college-major. Like a weak muscle that never gets exercised, their decision-making ability atrophies.

The other possible (and frequent) result is they rebel. They go off the deep end in the opposite direction because they can’t stand the feeling of anyone giving any input into their life. I can’t tell you how many young adults I’ve seen who’ve been tightly controlled or overly sheltered right up to the minute they left home, who go crazy when they get to college. Many of them make terrible, life-altering decisions that derail their future plans because they’ve never been trusted to make their own choices.

Do you want to set your teen up for wise decision-making? Before offering your own opinion about their decisions, ask them to give you their own thoughts first. Let them start by telling you what decision they would make if you let them. Then, as you hear them articulate wise choices and sound reasoning, you can start to trust them to actually decide. Also, take every opportunity to invite them into your own decision-making and let them be part of the process. Teach them the following steps to making good decisions (from What I Wish I Knew at 18, by Dennis Trittin):

Step 1: Determine your key decision criteria. Identify the key factors in making your decision. For example, when determining which college to attend, people consider a number of criteria, such as reputation, size, location, available majors, tuition costs, etc.

Step 2: Get the facts. Gather all of the facts about your decision options, along with any accompanying assumptions. In some cases, you’ll have to use your best guess.

Step 3: Identify all of your alternatives. Here, you’ll want to consider all realistic options without prejudging. Be thinking, “No choice is a bad choice,” at this stage.

Step 4: Engage wise counsel. Solicit the views of experienced and insightful people who know you well and understand the decision at hand. (This is an especially important step when a teen is considering different careers or college majors. It really pays to hear from actual practitioners in the fields he or she is exploring.) And, if you’re a person of faith, pray for wisdom and guidance.

Step 5: Conduct an objective pro/con analysis for each option. Now that you have the facts and some quality opinions from people you respect, you’re in a position to develop pro/con analyses for each option based on your key decision criteria. Here, you record the advantages and disadvantages and weigh them by importance. This is a particularly valuable step for visual learners, since the right decision often emerges when the pros significantly outweigh the cons.

Step 6: Consider your “gut instinct” or intuition. Chances are, by the time you’ve completed the fifth step, your best choice will have emerged. However, the final test is what your intuition is telling you. If, after completing steps one to five, you have a nagging feeling that it isn’t right, sleep on it. If you’re still uncertain the following day, have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself and your most trusted advisors. This will either reinforce your preliminary decision (which will provide the needed conviction) or it will compel you to more seriously consider your other alternatives.

Don’t, under any circumstances, forget this final step. It may make all the difference in the world!

Arlyn Lawrence is the co-author of Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real World, and What I Wish I Knew at 18: Life Lessons for the Road Ahead (available as a leadership and life skills curriculum for teens in standard and Christian editions). Arlyn is the mother of five grown children and grandmother of two. She and co-author Dennis Trittin speak and provide resources for parents, teens, educators, and mentors about building “life literacy” in children and young adults. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter!

Image Credit: Joe Thorn