Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo

Teaching Children Decision-Making Skills

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo, catch a tiger by the toe; if he hollers let him go, eeny, meeny, miny, mo!” There are numerous variations on this childhood playground rhyme, but whatever form it takes, it is essentially a rudimentary decision-making tool. Children around the world use this or similar counting rhymes to decide who will be their teammates, which chocolate they will eat, or who among their siblings gets to push the elevator or lift button.

But inevitably the decisions children face will become a bit more complicated, and so will the consequences for making bad choices. Choosing homework over video games can mean the difference between good grades and bad; choosing one friend over another could mean the difference between being exposed to risky behaviors or mind-expanding, positive experiences. In fact, just about every aspect of our children’s well-being depends on how adept they become at making wise decisions.

By the time we are parents, we understand that the consequences of a single bad choice can reverberate for years, so we want to help our children become competent decision-makers. But what skills are required, and how do parents instill them? Should we teach them to weigh costs against benefits until they reach the “only” rational option? Or should we teach them to “trust their gut,” or to get the mind out of the way so the heart can lead, as some self-help gurus advise? And how do children learn to judge a particular choice as good or bad in the first place?

The values used in such judgments come to children initially through their parents, but if parents are ignorant of the processes they use in their own decision-making, they run the risk of passing down habits that work against the values they are trying so hard to instill. Knowing something about how people make decisions can give us an advantage as we teach our children but also as we work to ensure that our own decision-making offers an appropriate model.

The mystery of how we make decisions . . . is one of the oldest mysteries of the mind. Even though we are defined by our decisions, we are often completely unaware of what’s happening inside our heads during the decision-making process.” 

Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (2009)

Decision-Making Basics

Many theories have arisen over the years and have become finely tuned as advances in neuroscience illuminate what actually occurs in the brain during the decision-making process. It is now known that, much like other critical skills such as self-control , decision-making requires us to use automatic as well as controlled processes. Depending on their theoretical approach, researchers might describe these as intuitive, experiential, System 1 or emotional processes working alongsidelogical, analytic, System 2 or cognitive processes. For centuries the two systems have been seen as at odds with one another. Plato, René Descartes and Sigmund Freud are among a long line of thinkers who held that the most highly evolved society would be one in which logic conquered emotion. If we could become truly Spock-like, our progress would no longer be hampered by anything so primitive as human sensibility.

It can be difficult to discard this notion. As neuroscientist C. Daniel Salzman of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science points out, “if you think about our own decision making, we might fool ourselves into thinking we’re perfectly rational beings, but of course that is far from the case. Clearly emotional factors affect how we make decisions all the time.”

Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer underscores this point as he distills some of the findings of neuroscience in his 2009 book, How We Decide. “The simple truth of the matter is that making good decisions requires us to use both sides of the mind,” he writes. “Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions.” In fact, neuroscientists insist that much of our decision-making employs varying degrees of both styles of thought in tandem. Both systems can be fooled though, so it is important to be aware of how we use them, whether we tend to favor the use of one over the other, and how they work together best.

In other words, says Lehrer, “We always need to be thinking about how we think.” This skill is known as metacognition, and according to developmental psychologist Paul Klaczynski, metacognitive ability, the understanding of our own thought processes, is the key to avoiding many of the pitfalls and fallacies that trip us up in decision-making.

Experience: A Fallible Teacher

Most people can readily name some of the fallacies that fool our logical processes. But our emotions can also be fooled, despite the impressive efficiency of the brain’s dopamine system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in helping us make emotional predictions based on experience. When we encounter a novel experience, the dopamine system kicks in and lets us know that something unexpected and potentially important has happened. It can induce fear or pleasure, but either way the experience is filed away for future reference. Much of the data it encodes from our environment is subtle; we are often not even aware we are registering the information, but as it accumulates it forms the basis for our gut feelings and enables us to make fairly accurate on-the-fly decisions in certain situations. This comes in handy when we need to make a split-second decision behind the wheel of a car or on a sports field. However, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in decision-making, points out that this doesn’t always work out for us. When there are no recent experiences to reference, he says, our emotional processor (which he calls “System 1”) goes on to more distant memories, often jumping to its conclusions without even alerting us that any ambiguity was present, and we remain blissfully unaware that any doubt was called for.

It is easy to see why emotional biases and faulty “rules of thumb” can affect our judgment if left unchallenged by our more controlled thinking, but another problem is posed by the randomness we encounter. Because the dopamine system works by imposing patterns on our experience, the downside is that even when there are no patterns to be imposed we may still be driven to see meaningful trends where there are none. This is one of the reasons people trust quack health interventions on the strength of a few testimonials, or see grand conspiracies in a random collection of events. The human brain wants to discover patterns—and while this is helpful where patterns exist, it can derail us where they do not. Understanding the potential for error should motivate us to question how we think; and the more we do this, the better we learn when it is appropriate to listen to our gut feelings and when we should examine them against concrete evidence.

Unfortunately, some of the biases and errors filed away in our emotional memory are difficult to root out, particularly those that have formed during long-term trauma or abusive experiences. Recurrent trauma can program us to be hypervigilant to threat and negativity, and repeated unsuccessful attempts to change our condition may imbue us with a sense of helplessness. If we lack sufficient resilience, these emotional programs can become so deeply ingrained in our brain’s structure that we ignore even the most concrete evidence that contradicts our experiences. Our negative gut feelings in these cases contribute not only to bad decision-making but to a variety of mental illnesses, which in turn contribute to more bad decision-making. “For many psychiatric disorders,” observes Salzman, “patients that are symptomatic are frequently making poor decisions about numerous things throughout the day, such as how they handle their anxiety and other emotional states. If you’ve ever had a friend or family member with depression, you can see they are not making decisions the way they normally do.”

Even in childhood, the quality of thinking varies substantially across contexts. The same child may think well in some circumstances but fall prey to serious biases in other circumstances.” 

David Moshman, “Commentary: The Development of Thinking” (2005

Clearly, then, experience can misinform our gut feelings to the point that they can drag our decision-making ability considerably off-track. On the other hand, when we have trustworthy experiences that are interpreted accurately, our emotions can become a valuable asset to logical thinking. But experience takes time to accumulate, which is why children and adolescents need guided practice in making decisions, along with instruction about how to think about how they are thinking. This is an important role for parents, because even as children begin to develop these metacognitive abilities, they may still lack the disposition on their own to put these skills to work.

In addition to metacognition, David Moshman, professor of educational psychology, sees a second important foundation for good decision-making skills: a sense of identity, the foundations of which, he says, “might be expected to develop as we formulate our beliefs, values, and commitments.” As these values (presumably taught by parents) are internalized, they will become the primary informant not only for children’s logical thinking but also for their emotions, which are crucial to making moral decisions.

This has been clearly seen by neuroscientists studying patients with brain lesions affecting the region responsible for emotions. Such patients retain their ability to make solid logical decisions based on the letter of the law alone (such as, “Is it okay to murder someone?”), but in moral scenarios that require a more complex judgment call—such as whether it is okay to kill a baby if it would save nine adults—findings have been chilling. People bereft of their emotional capacity see no complex dilemma. Without hesitation they choose the utilitarian response: “Sure, smother the baby.”

Moral decisions are a unique kind of decision. When you’re picking out products in the grocery store, searching for the best possible strawberry jam, you are trying to maximize your own enjoyment. . . . Moral decisions require taking other people into account.” 

Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (2009) 

Parenting Good Decision-Makers

Seeing how important it is for logical and emotional processes to work together, a high priority for parents must be to help children learn to integrate these functions. This is often described as integrating the right brain versus left brain, with the understanding that the right hemisphere functions as the seat of emotions and intuitions and the left controls logic and language.

In children the right hemisphere of the brain is at first dominant. Infants communicate through their emotions; we know when they are hungry or uncomfortable, because they cry. Almost instinctively, engaged parents respond by trying to put their child’s feelings into words. “You’re cold, aren’t you?” they might ask, following up by verbalizing their physical responses: “Let’s get you a blanket.” The left brain, always the logical interpreter, tries to make sense of experience, a process that is aided by language. As parents help their infants and toddlers put their experiences into words, they are not only teaching them language skills but they are also helping their children order events into a literal sequence, and both are fundamental to integrating their emotional and logical processes. But good decision-making also requires that we integrate impulses and control processes; that is, it requires self-regulation.

UCLA professor of psychiatry Daniel Siegel refers to this as integrating the “upstairs brain” and the “downstairs brain.” “A parent’s goal,” he says in his 2011 book, cowritten with child therapist Tina Payne Bryson, “should be to help build and reinforce the metaphorical stairway that connects the child’s upper and lower brain so that the two can work as a team” (The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind). However, Siegel and Bryson also point out that the upstairs brain isn’t fully mature until we reach our mid-twenties, and possibly beyond. This is important, they note, because it means that “the behaviors and skills we want and expect our kids to demonstrate, like sound decision-making, control of their emotions and bodies, empathy, self-understanding, and morality—are dependent on a part of their brain that hasn’t fully developed yet.” This is why “kids are prone to getting ‘trapped downstairs,’” say the authors, “which results in them flying off the handle, making poor decisions, and showing a general lack of empathy and self-understanding.”

Parents have endless opportunities to help their children integrate their brain, both laterally and vertically. Of course, unavoidably, we will miss some of these. Sometimes we will make the mistake of responding to our children by brushing off their emotion and charging in with our best logic and reasoning. This is much like trying to open a door with a key that doesn’t fit, and for both parent and child this approach often leads to frustration. This is not to say that parents should completely toss out logic and reasoning. But opening the door to a child’s logical side requires connecting with their emotional side first—creating the interpersonal attunement that is needed to gain access to the logical side of the child’s brain. A parent might acknowledge, for instance, her son’s fear of thunderstorms and offer understanding—perhaps even relating a similar experience from her own childhood. The child is then better able to put his fearful feelings into words, give meaning to his experience, or redirect his attention to reasoning through it.

At other times we may miss opportunities to let children exercise their prefrontal cortex, the upstairs brain. Practice in decision-making can (and should) be offered to children as often as possible, but it should be age-appropriate and framed so as not to be overwhelming. For instance, a two-year-old should be able to choose between two or three flavors of ice cream, but allowing him to choose from among 31 might simply turn a trip to the ice-cream parlor into a frustrating situation for both parent and child.

As children grow older, parents who are engaged and aware of their children’s developmental changes are likely to pick up readiness cues that tell them when it may be time to give children practice in more complex decision-making.

Although it may be tempting to prevent them from making even the most minor mistakes, parents don’t do children any favors by controlling the outcome of every decision. Unquestionably there are potentially life-changing decisions that parents will need to have more of a hand in. But in a matter with relatively limited consequences such as how an allowance is spent, older children can gain valuable experience from struggling with a decision and finding they must live with the outcome, and even toddlers can learn such lessons from the choices they are allowed to make. Children of all ages also learn from the choices parents make. As parents verbally rehearse their plans and goals, and the actions they take to achieve them, they are modeling their decision-making skills while also giving children the sense that they are involved—another form of guided practice.

It is never too early for this. Children as young as 18 months are already capable of understanding concepts such as fairness, reciprocity, correct versus incorrect behavior, and punishment. Even at this age, children understand when a violation is intentional or accidental, and they judge responsibility accordingly. They are also capable of a somewhat imperfect understanding of cause and effect, another important aspect of decision-making. Of course, a very young child may associate two unrelated events simply because they occurred at the same time. But as parents play with their children, read to them, and talk over the events of the day with them, they can point out connections between cause and effect while also teaching empathy, moral values and logical thinking.

As they move out of the toddler years, between the ages of about 3 and 6, children possess “theory of mind,” which enables them to understand that others may have thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are different from their own. This allows them to take a more objective view of their own experiences as they practice imagining the perspective of another person. This ability is not fully developed in preschoolers, however; at 5 or 6 years of age a child who is accidentally hurt by a playmate may assume the event was intentional. But parents can hone children’s logic in these areas by helping them question their assumptions and biases. Preschool children are beginning to internalize the family’s expectations and values, forming the basis of conscience, and by the time they are about 8 these foundations will be developed to the point that they should be able to consider both intentions and consequences when making moral judgments, and to distinguish between actions that violate moral rules versus those that violate social conventions.

Beyond Childhood

Until recently, most of the research on the childhood development of decision-making has focused on adolescents, and on risk-taking in particular. Adolescents are seen as risky decision-makers in general, though even children as young as 4 will often opt to take a risk if it means gaining a higher reward. But adolescents have far more sophisticated reasoning skills than do younger children. They can think reflectively, envisioning hypothetical situations while applying deductive reasoning and anticipating potential regret. And they do not make decisions simply by calculating the risk. Rather, family, peer, cultural and many other influences affect their choices.

Parents and peers provide different types of support and influence. . . . Within the context of these relationships, adolescents seek guidance from both their parents and their peers on everyday concerns, as well as on future-oriented decisions.” 

Laura L. Finken, “The Role of Consultants in Adolescents’ Decision Making: A Focus on Abortion Decisions” (2005)

In fact, adolescents are capable of taking surprisingly adult-like approaches to risk. Most adults would not, for instance, mathematically calculate the risk of catching a bullet in Russian roulette before deciding whether to play; they would simply summarize the risk as a life-or-death choice and reject taking it at all. Adolescents are perfectly capable of thinking about risk this way, especially if they are taught to do so by parents who have set the stage, providing regular practice in decision-making while also collaborating in those decisions and setting appropriate standards and values on which to base them. There is no reason for parents to fear giving adolescents practice in autonomous decision-making. If the family environment is supportive and teens feel connected, they will not hesitate to consult with parents about important decisions.

Indeed, say researchers, 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. Whether or not such confidence is well placed would depend on the parents’ own decision-making skills. Unfortunately there’s no magical age at which people suddenly achieve a “mature” level of judgment. As Moshman puts it, “development beyond childhood, it appears, is not a matter of universal progress toward some endpoint routinely achieved at some specifiable age. Rather, developmental progress beyond childhood is more subtle and multifaceted.” In other words, there is no guarantee that adults will make perfect choices.

Still, if parents are to help their children become good decision-makers, they themselves must be well past the eeny-meeny-miny-mo stage. If we are to get there, then the “tiger” that must be caught by the toe is the ability to think about how we think. Without self-examination, none of us can be sure whether the fundamental values, beliefs and techniques we use in making decisions are sound, and if ours are not, those of our children are not likely to be sound either.

Perhaps questioning what we think, then, is secondary to questioning how we think. If our thoughts and emotions rest on faulty foundations, we may as well be making our decisions using a playground counting rhyme and teaching our children to do the same.