Children and Decision-making

By Pam Henderson

During a recent fit of insomnia, I watched a late, late 1940’s movie, “The Green Promise.” Despite its single star rating, I was drawn in to see its young star, Natalie Wood.

Natalie Wood’s character, Susan, was one of four children being raised on a farm by a grouchy and stubborn widower, played by Walter Brennan. While this father loved his children, he treated them more like farm hands than offspring. Managing the farm and household were all-consuming responsibilities.

Still, as domineering as he was, the father ran the household using a democratic process. That is, he would call a family meeting when decisions were to be made and the popular vote would win. In his heart, the father thought that every opinion was fairly represented and given equal weight. Yet, there was a problem with his process. Two of the children were afraid to disagree with their father, and one of the children always agreed in an attempt to gain more favor in his eyes. The youngest child, the precocious Susan, wasn’t afraid to introduce her own ideas, but would be told that she must not love the family as much as they love her if she sees things differently than the rest of the family. In the end, the father’s alienating ways ensured his win at every meeting.

One morning, the county farm advisor came around to tell the father that the trees on the hill adjacent to the fields provided protection from damaging rains. The advisor explained that the roots and trunks kept the soil in place and were the best chance to avoid erosion. Instead, when the father looked at the trees, he saw dollar signs. Against his children’s wishes, he had the trees cut down and sold the lumber.

Soon after, a heavy rain came and flooded the farm field. This was now the fourth farm that the father destroyed, and all because he fought well-intentioned farming advice. When it seems as though he has lost everything, the father apologized to his children for being stubborn. At that moment, the 4-H’ers arrive to clean up the farm, to the father’s disbelief and gratitude.

Incidentally, the real value in the film was its promotion of 4-H (and, the film had been distributed by the U. S. Department of Education). In the film, the county farm agent saw 4-H as a way to funnel Susan’s independent spirit and desire to make a name for herself, apart from her father and the so-called democratic process of the household. Susan had to go against her father’s will, and secretly join 4-H while her father was laid up in bed recovering from an injury.

The film made me wonder how the democratic process really can work in parenting. There wasn’t a chance that the children would out-vote their father, but what if they had? Would he have relied upon a 10 year old’s advice to decide how to spend the crop insurance money?

Making wise decisions takes years of practice, but no one ever truly masters it. Most of us likely know some adults who continue to make bad decisions. Wise decision-making is an art of balancing our emotions with logic, wants with needs. Immediate gratification can lure us into making decisions that may give pleasure today, but in the long-run, are damaging.

As parents, we need to give our children the chance to make decisions – even bad ones – so they can learn from their mistakes. Yet, it is easier said than done. Most of us have an innate urge to protect our children from anything that could harm them, even if that means manipulating the outcome. Jim Taylor, Ph.D. wrote for Psychology Today, “When your children make bad decisions, they may suffer for it, but they can learn from the experience and make better decisions in the future.” (2009)

Dr. Taylor said that when he presents to children, he asks them why they do stupid things. Their responses include:

He says that children are supposed to do “stupid” things, because they can learn and mature from them. The problem arises when children grow up and haven’t learned from their mistakes or their parents don’t hold them responsible for their bad decisions. Dr. Taylor urges parents to expand the choices they give their children as they grow and to help them recognize whether their decisions were good or bad and the consequences of their decisions.

Dr. Taylor offers these questions for children. He encourages them to pause for a moment, and ask themselves these questions:

“Why do I want to do this?”
“What are my options?”
“What are the consequences?” (or, “How much trouble will get in?”)
“Is this decision in my best interests?”

Even adults can use these questions as a guide to decision-making.

Forensic psychologist Gina Stepp points out an interesting phenomenon. She shares that researchers have found that even though adolescents do take advice from peers into consideration when they face important decisions, most place the highest value on advice that comes from parents. Stepp adds that “whether or not such confidence is well placed would depend on the parents’ own decision-making skills.” (Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo, 2012)