Preparing Teens For The 21st Century Work Place: Decision Making

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Your kids will be growing to adulthood in a century where the complexity of technology and the pace of change is unlike anything humans have ever experienced.  This is one in a series of columns devoted to identifying core competencies that will help teens be successful in this 21st century workplace.  With increasing responsibility and independence placed on individual workers, the ability to filter through the glut of information and make good decisions will be a necessity in the 21st century work environment.  Once a situation or issue has been evaluated and the options have been identified your kid will need to be able to act decisively.

Deciding is at the heart of a broader decision making process that integrates various skills (some of which have been discussed in other columns).  So, a quick overview of the process of decision making is in order before we review strategies to help your kid improve their decision making skills.  When experts talk about the decision making process, they identify a series of steps.

  • Identify a goal.   In decision making the outcome you are after means everything.  What are you trying to accomplish or resolve?  Do I get drunk or stay sober?  Do I study for that test tomorrow or do I hang out with my boyfriend?    (For suggestions about helping your kid with setting goals, see Goal Setting chapter in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century)
  • Generate options.  Effective decision making requires multiple options.  Your kid will benefit from being able to generate multiple, high quality options for accomplishing an identified goal.  (For suggestions on how to help your kid improve their skills at generating options, see my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century.)
  • Risk/benefit analysis.  An analysis of the pros and cons of each option is crucial to good decision making.  Critical analysis skills can be helpful at this step (see previous post)
  • Prioritize.  Now that the pros and cons of various options have been identified your kid will need to separate them into high priority and low priority.  This will depend on their goal as well as their values.  “I want some money.  It is very important.  Do I want to work for it or steal it from someone else?”  “I could give it my best and take more time or do a shoddy job and get out of here earlier.  Hmmm.”  Decisions.  Decisions.
  • Decide.  It all comes down to this; you must choose.
  • Monitor and review.  Once a decision has been made it is important to check back regularly to determine whether conditions change, effectiveness wanes or it is just a bad decision (i.e., the goal is not being achieved).  Then, the outcomes of the decision need to be assessed to learn from this experience for future situations.

Alright.  Here are some ideas for helping your kid get better at and be more comfortable making decisions.

Highlight decision making.  Kids can’t always recognize that a decision is called for.  Any time there is a choice, your kid will be making a decision.  Point out effective and ineffective decision making that goes on around you.  Comment on good and bad decisions people make (and why it’s good or bad).  Use phrases like “What are you going to decide?”  “You decided to take the risk . . .”  “You’ve got a number of choices here.”  “That was a really good decision.”   “Make good decisions.”  “You’re going to have to decide between . . . and . . .”  (If you use “choice” all the time it can drive your kid crazy.  Try some variations that imply choice like “Be sure to THINK!”  “What are you going to do if/when . . .”)

Step them through it.  Your kid will need to know how to make effective, successful decisions.  So start their training by going through the steps of decision making.  Pick an issue or situation and guide your kid make their way through the decision making process.  This will give you the chance to teach them as well as assess their capacity for decision making (and thus whether you can trust them as far as you can throw them).

Keep/pitch.  Some decisions come with an overwhelming number of options.  Your kid may need help learning how to break decision making into pieces using a “this or that” strategy.  Identify two options.  Decide between the two.  Now repeat that using the chosen option and the next option.  Have them repeat until they end up with the final, best option.

Good and bad decisions.  Effective decision making is not the same as a good or bad decision.  What makes a good decision?  A bad one?  The beginning place will be moral or ethical principles (e.g., decisions to lie, cheat or steal are bad; generosity, fulfilling obligations, kindness are good).  Make sure your kid develops some basic criteria.  When they make a good decision, analyze what made it a good decision.  Do the same for bad decisions (trying to leave out the criticism or disappointment during the discussion).

Encourage decision making.  It will be important for your kid to know it is important for them to make good, effective decisions.  Be direct about your expectation that they decide some things for themselves (as opposed to just reacting or waiting to be told).  “Give it a shot!”  “Decide and let’s see how it turns out.”  “It’s going to be up to you.”  “You choose; it’s your business.”

Make them decide.  If your kid is going to be good at decision making they will need a lot of practice.  Teenagers face serious choices that can alter the course of their entire lives.  Start early and have them decide often.  Make them decide what to wear, where to go, when to leave, whether to spend money, what they are going to eat, when to get up, when to go to bed.  “You decide for us.”  “You need to decide.”  “It is going to be your decision.”  Don’t intervene when you know the decision isn’t the right one (as long as the consequences aren’t dire or immoral).  Just make sure they think it through first (so you can say “I told you so” later.)

Deciding for others.  Some of the most difficult decisions are those that impact others.  Have your kid make a decision for the whole family as a way of practicing this kind of decision making.  “You are going to pick the restaurant tonight.”  “You have to decide for all of us what we will do this weekend.”  (Some kids are perfectly happy to do what they want without any consideration for the preferences of others.  You may want to modify this so that your kid has to make a decision where everyone is at least satisfied.  It’s great!  It’ll drive them crazy.  You can actually use this as punishment!)

Encourage risky decision making.  Conservative, safe decisions are not the only ones your kid will be faced with making.  They will need to learn how to make calculated, thoughtful decisions about situations that involve some level of risk.  Look for situations that require your kid to take (non-catastrophic) chances.  Take them through the decision making steps (and the critical analysis process discussed here).  (If you are leery of allowing them to do something risky, you can start by making it look like they get to decide; unless they may the wrong decision.  “Hold on.  Take me through your thinking about going skateboarding without a helmet.”  [your kid gives the right answer] “I agree.  That’s good thinking son.”  [your kid gives the wrong answer]  “I don’t care what you chose, put that DAMN helmet on!”

Provide perspective.  You are in the perfect position to provide perspective on how serious (or not) the outcome of a decision will be.  Help your kid stay calm about their decisions (or the need to make a decision).  Making decisions is not about knowing for sure it will turn out as you hope or expect.  Help them understand the importance of learning something from every experience, whether for good or for ill.

Stories of failure.  Kids may avoid making decisions for fear of making a mistake.  Your kid may need to be desensitized to the prospect of failure or screwing up or just being wrong.  Talk to them about situations in your life where things got all screwed up because of decisions you made.  Talk about how it turned out.  Tell them about decisions you are proud of making (small, moral ones as well as big, life changing ones).  Before you do, you might want to read the chapters in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century on what to reveal-and not reveal- to your kid.

Review decisions.  Circle back around to decisions they made to see what they learned from the process.  Briefly review the decision from their perspective.  Was it effective?  Why was it a good one or a bad one?  Don’t talk about whether they were right or wrong (save that for another time).  This discussion is about the quality of the decision making.

Remember.  The more discussion about the decision making process, the better.  The more decision making, the better.

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