Decision-Making: Allowing Children to Make Mistakes

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It is important that we help children develop good decision-making skills. By the time children are teens, or even pre-teens, they will be exposed to decisions that can have life-altering consequences. It is our job, as adults, to help children develop good decision-making skills so that their decisions can have the best possible outcomes.

As adults, we often intervene when children are trying to make a decision. Why do we intervene? Common reasons include:
• because we can do it faster
• because we can do it better
• because we can protect them from making mistakes

However, allowing children to make mistakes is an important part of helping them learn to make good decisions. Just as we adults can learn from our mistakes, so too can children's mistakes become positive learning experiences. In those situations, we can help children process what happened, back-tracking from the outcome to the point at which a decision was made that led to that outcome. In this way, they can learn to make better decisions in the future, either when similar circumstances arise, or in general situations where a decision is required.

Children can learn from the consequences of their choices. For example, a preschooler may cry about a block structure that fell down, "I pulled this bottom block out and the whole tower fell down!" An older child, experiencing a more serious undesired outcome such as losing his/her bike, may cry, "I just left my bike there for a little while because I wanted to go play with my friend!"

In situations such as these, when a child experiences a negative outcome, help the child reflect upon what transpired, as well as his/her role in the process. There was a point at which a decision was made... perhaps impulsively, perhaps without forethought and consideration of possible outcomes or consequences. This is where we want to help focus the child's attention.

Being as compassionate or neutral as possible, and without judgment, help the child to identify exactly what the choice was that led to the undesired outcome. Help the child to reflect, using hindsight, to discover what other decision(s) could have been made, which might have led to a more desirable outcome.

It is through reflection and processing about the decisions that have led to undesirable outcomes, that we can increase a child's awareness that it is better to think things through BEFORE making a decision, and we can guide a child in how to do that.

While a child's poor decision may result in an unhappy outcome, there is value in allowing children to make such mistakes when the consequences are not severe. By helping to process what happened, how it happened, and why it happened, they can learn to become more conscious of their choices, and more responsible for their actions. We can help to turn these unhappy events into valuable learning experiences that will help the child develop the skills to make better decisions in the future.