Learning how to make good decisions is an essential life skill; not just for achieving outward success, but in order to secure a lasting sense of personal fulfilment.
In the words of Simon McKeon, Chancellor of Monash University:
‘The only person we spend our entire lives with is ourselves… deep down, we need to be fundamentally satisfied with the decisions we make’.
However well we prepare our children with skills and knowledge, they will be entering an uncertain world. Opportunities are constantly evolving and as one door closes, another may open. Consequently, the ability to make effective decisions that they remain happy with can directly impact their happiness both today and long into adulthood.
Broadly, decisions can be made with emotion, or with logic; although these two paths don’t always deliver the same conclusion.
Often, we may think others make crazy choices, that turn out to work brilliantly. Perhaps they decided with their heart on something that mattered a lot to them; whereas we – looking in – only used our head.
Decision-making is often the result of a focus on one of two extremes.
Making decisions entirely on feelings, without considering logic
Tucked under the clutter of everyday thoughts are our core values.
For example, every teenager will face the decision of whether to spend time with friends, or stay in and do homework. Unconsciously, they’ll weigh up which choice is more aligned with their values.
In many ways, values are about happiness. Being with friends provides a clear, short-term happiness; whereas staying in and doing homework does not.
So, if the decision is to pursue short-term happiness, then the decision is easy – go out and spend time with friends!
Our internal values drive our decision-making. Antonio Damasio – a professor of neuroscience – says that values act like ‘emotional rudders’, to steer us through options quickly and effortlessly.
A teenager choosing to socialise instead of doing their homework is being steered in a direction which is perhaps less likely to be of long-term benefit.
However, a specific long-term goal – such as an exciting career – can provide an effective motivation; with the promise of long-term happiness sufficient to outweigh the immediate gratification of socialising and result in the decision to stay at home and work instead.
However, the ability to prioritise long-term happiness over immediate gratification is a strategy which requires a certain level of self-confidence and discipline to be able to apply.
Making decisions entirely with logic, without considering feelings
A second strategy is to analyse each option and make a decision based on the choice that is more likely to result in a long-term positive outcome. This may require some research and personal reflection, but is a fairly reliable method for making good decisions.
However, for many teenagers, the pleasure and gratification of spending time with friends will outweigh the more distant rewards of staying at home and working.
Perhaps a sense of guilt may pervade; but this is easy to push to the back of the mind.
However, there are other options. Perhaps they could socialise another evening in the week? Or they could meet up and work on their assignments together? With a little thought, there are often ways to enjoy today and still work towards future successes.
An older teenager will encounter tougher decisions yet, with even more direct impact on their future – such as which university to study at.
An 18-year-old might dutifully list the pros and cons of each university which offers their preferred course; ensuring they check every university review and prospectus, before arriving on a clear, logical choice.
Nonetheless, this choice – as much as it may tick every box – might just not feel right.
Maybe it’s in the wrong location? Perhaps they’ve subconsciously realised that another university has a mix of students, or sports and facilities which are really appealing to them?
Emotions can warn of a threat to our values and immediate or future happiness. So, once again, feelings and logic can come into conflict.
Let’s consider a third strategy.
Hearts and minds together
Neither the logic or the feelings were ‘wrong’, in either of these examples.
It would be a mistake to ignore what our feelings are trying to tell us. Equally, it would be a mistake to act immediately on our feelings, without pausing for thought.
What helps, is to identify our feelings, then take the time to consider where they have come from. Are they justified? Are they based on intelligent principals?
By checking our feelings with logic, we can better understand our motivations, qualify our feelings and learn more about ourselves; while making more intelligent decisions.
Perhaps some of these decisions will require compromise – but they’re likely to be better choices than those made by either of the two extremes of logic or feelings.
Young people can only benefit from learning alternative decision-making processes and using them to discover solutions which will bring them more happiness – both immediately and in the future.
If emotions are strong, then pause for thought is beneficial; whereas if logic is being applied, checking our feelings is helpful.
Each checks the other and, together, the decision is likely to be stronger for it.
Or – in the words of Simon McKeown – at least it will be one we can live with.
How do we help children make decisions they can live with?
Like most situations involving learning, it’s better to start early.
Clearly, young children shouldn’t take decisions which jeopardise their future or well-being.
They can, however, be encouraged to make decisions from an early age; progressively developing their experience and learning how to decide, based on the examples you set (see Climbing the Ladder).
Don’t hesitate to talk through your decisions aloud, as though to yourself, so that they can hear you consulting and exploring your feelings and applying logic.
Help them to identify their feelings and interpret what they might mean, as well as teach them the value of pausing for thought.
Children especially enjoy learning through stories. Many great stories involve challenging decisions, where the heart and mind are in conflict.
For example, Amy’s Goose (E.T. Holmes) tells the tale of a girl who adopts a wild goose.
When the goose is able to fly, Amy is faced with a dilemma: should she follow her feelings and keep the goose she loves, or do what her head tells her is right and set it free?
Talking this story through can show a child that hearts and minds can pull two ways and that personal decisions can be difficult. Nevertheless, learning how to take decisions that will impact the rest of our lives is a core part of being human.
Older children – and particularly adolescents – pass through physical and mental changes which can unbalance their hearts, minds and the relationship between each; things that you have tried so hard to develop in them.
For instance, they may experiment with new, enticing values that you may find inappropriate. Often, the endorsement of their peers is important enough to override rationality; resulting in dangerous or destructive actions.
Fortunately, these are often transient behaviours. Habits of mind and values you passed on earlier will show through, as these young people mature.
While teenagers are developing, calm surroundings and an understanding approach can encourage them to think more rationally about their choices.
Often, teenagers will happily take advice from an older sibling or peer, while dismissing those of any perceived authority figures – including parents or teachers. Older teenagers might take a mentoring role seriously and use it as an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their own maturity.
Encouraging teenagers to identify escape routes from dangerous situations can be helpful – if only for your own peace-of-mind.
Quick decisions tend to come from unchecked emotional responses, so trying to encourage teenagers to spend more time thinking their decisions through can be helpful.
Emotional responses may point in the right direction, but they should stand up to thoughtful scrutiny. Often, good decisions are complex and helping a teenager to break them into manageable parts can guide them in the right direction.
Young people especially need to learn to realise when their decisions affect others; especially when it’s someone else who might have to pick the pieces up, if it goes wrong.
Perhaps the single most important quality of all for a young person to develop, is the ability to think about the feelings of others and to appreciate the value of doing so.
Learning how to make good decisions at school
Good schools can promote and foster core values, which are so crucial to decision-making.
These include qualities such as conscientiousness and persistence; and values such as integrity, tolerance of differences, fairness, justice, respect and compassion.
Promotion of these values and qualities tends to result in better academic work habits and more positive relationships; supporting the International Baccalaureate’s ideal of developing people who, ‘Help to create a better and more peaceful world’ and who can ‘Make reasoned, ethical decisions’.
Much of the school experience for students is about making decisions; many of which are impersonal, simply relating to their studies. For example, in Chemistry lessons they may be asked to decide how to identify the substances in a mixture and explain their choice.
Logic has priority here, whereas feelings are usually of little relevance.
In personal decision-making, however, vested interests and values matter – and logic and feelings can usefully support one another.
Personal and Social Education in school is likely to include personal decision-making; but there will be many occasions when children are faced with real options and choices which put them to the test.
Often, you will be the one who encounters your child’s decision-making processes and who will be there to help guide them through it.
Decision-making – a potent life skill
Our existence is played out through the choices we make – some of which can be life-changing.
We can never be certain that a particular decision will give us what we want; but we will know that it will change lives, for better or for worse. Skilful decision-making increases the likelihood that it will be for the better – so it may be the best gift a child can have.
Allowing children to practise decision-making is something they do partly under the guidance of teachers, but especially with the support of parents.
However, teachers and parents are not around forever – so they must practise, if they are to learn how to think well and independently when they are adults.
Professor Douglas Newton PhD DSc teaches and researches in the School of Education, Durham University, UK. His particular interest is in fostering productive thought, of which decision-making is an example. If you would like to know more about how moods and emotions influence thought, see his most recent book, Thinking with Feeling (Routledge, London). Amongst other work, Professor Newton contributes to the training of teachers in the UK and in International Schools in Geneva. His next book, In Two Minds (ICIE, Ulm), about emotions and thought, will appear later this year.