Teaching decision making to your kids: It’s much more than teaching right from wrong!

Psychologists have found that we make decisions in two primary ways: rational and heuristic. Parents need to understand how to teach to both.

“I taught them right from wrong! How could he have been so stupid?”

A question asked by parents a thousand times.  We want our kids to make great decisions, but don’t know how to get them to do it.  In my book, Essence of Wisdom for Children, I point out that teens, in particular, often make choices in unexpected ways.

The root of our problem is that we live in cultural environment very different from that in which our brains evolved.  The human brain was “designed’ to work well when we were part of small, close-knit, nomadic tribes living on the plains of the Serengeti.  Unfortunately, our decision-making environment is quite different now.

Back on the plains, we could rely on our instincts alone to teach our kids how to make decisions.  In our modern environment, though, it helps to borrow a bit from the field of cognitive psychology.

Psychologists have found that we make decisions in two primary ways.  First, there is heuristic decisions making which is gives us the ability to make quick-reaction, gut-level decisions, and then there is a more rational, slow, and deliberate decision-making process.

It is this latter type of decision-making that we use to evaluate right from wrong.  It engages the rational, outer-layer portion of the brain that is capable of thoughtfully balancing the pro’s and con’s of our choices.  As any parent may guess, it is the former type of decision-making that we use for the vast majority of our daily decisions.  Heuristic decisions are made deeply in the core of our brain and require much less energy and effort than those decisions made in the more rational, outer layers which is why make heuristic decisions so often.

In On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, Wray Herbert introduces a number of specific heuristics wired into our heads.  The following are those that parents will most readily recognized once they understand how they work in the lives of their children:

The fluency heuristic – causes us to generally choose to continue to follow a decision previously made.

The acceptance heuristic – causes us to make decisions that will provide us with a sense of approval from others.

The familiarity heuristic – causes us to choose items or actions that are familiar to us.

Ever wonder why your young adult would ride home from a party with a drunk driver?  It may be the fluency heuristic in action.  If they had previously planned on driving home with this friend, then the brain will fight against any change of plan.

Wonder why your child would take a dare and throw rocks at a passing automobile?  It may be the acceptance heuristic in action.

Wonder why your child would ignore the “new kid” at the lunch table?  It may be the work of the familiarity heuristic.

As you come to understand that it is not simply knowledge that so affects your children’s decision making, you can release yourself from any parenting guilt you may harbor for not successfully teaching your kids right from wrong, however, you may now understand that whole new approaches to helping your child are necessary.

The key to developing a decision-training strategy is to learn to use some of these heuristics to your advantage.  Athletic coaches, police trainers, and the military have been doing this for years even if they may not understand the psychological underpinnings of what they are doing. A key strategy of working with the heuristics is to:

Teach your children to make decisions before a situation arises.

As an example of this, as I was teaching my son how to drive, I had him visualize a scenario were a dog ran out in front of him on a crowded highway.  We talked though this scenario and found that the safest course of action was to maintain control of the car and just hit the dog.  By going over this scenario several times, I was leveraging the familiarity heuristic enabling him to make this decision using the higher-speed, lower-level brain pathways.  Police trainers will tell you that in a critical situation, officers will always make decisions based on their training.

Police and military trainers use expensive simulations to mimic real-life situations as closely as possible to build in the familiarity.  This is a luxury parents rarely have; however, we can look again to science.  As it turns out, the vast majority of your brain really makes no distinction between input received from your actual five senses and input received through your imagination.  This, in fact, explains why humans have such advanced imaginations.

Imagination is the most powering decision learning tool ever utilized by human beings.

Our imagination helps us to live through life-changing situations well before we face them in the flesh.  Humans have used the imagination as a leaning tool for thousands of years.  Anthropologists will tell you that early human tribes always had their storytellers passing on the wisdom of the tribe to newer generations.  This is not just teaching the younger generation history and tribal religion.  The great storytellers activate the imagination of the other tribe members so that they can re-live the experiences of the elders, and thereby wire-up the mental heuristics so that the youth of the tribe will make the decisions needed to survive in a dangerous world.

Joshua Foer explains, in his book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, that ancient storyteller’s use of detailed visual descriptions greatly increased their audiences memory of a the story.  These visualizations also build into the listeners mind the familiarity needed to make fast decisions when they find themselves in similar situations.

With the invention of air conditioning, television, retirement homes, and two-career households, the multi-generational tradition of storytelling is being rapidly wiped out from our societal life, and with it, an important tool in the raising of children.

This tradition is being replaced by storytelling through television and the internet, and, much to parents horror, the decision making of our youth is following the patterns that they learn from those medium.  No wonder HIV is now officially at epidemic levels in major US cities.

So as a parent, you may want to resurrect this art of storytelling, and take advantage of your kids imaginations to share life lessons.  In general, help your children to think about and make critical decisions ahead of time.

It is insufficient to simply teach your kids right from wrong.  You must do more.

Doing more can be achieved in a variety of ways.  A mentor of mine regularly told me that I haven’t met my best friend in life yet.   This simple statement helped to shake up my mental processes and now, whenever I meet someone, the first though that runs through my mind is “could he be the one?”   This simple coaching has had a powerful affect on how I interact with people.

In many ways cognitive psychology is in its infancy, and its application in child-rearing is even more so, but you can certainly start to make use of some of these basic principles even now – just use your imagination.

Do you have any good stories about how you helped your kid make the right decision ahead of time?

One thought on “Teaching decision making to your kids: It’s much more than teaching right from wrong!”

  1. Very thoughtful and very helpful. I do think the idea of “imagining” situations as a way of preparing to act properly is an excellent one. As long as our imagined “solutions” are realistic and not just wishful thinking..

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