Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, the Eyres are sharing what they consider the best parenting ideas they have come across during their three decades of writing to and speaking with parents worldwide. Portions of this column have been previously published. See their previous columns on deseretnews.com.
We meet many families that have gone through much worry and grief because of a single bad decision that one of their children made. Sometimes, these disastrous choices involve drugs or sex or drinking or simply the bad judgment of accepting a ride with someone who has been drinking. Other times, they are as basic as cheating on a test or shoplifting or just getting involved with the wrong crowd. Often, they are “default decisions” that come about from not making a good choice — not qualifying or applying for college, or not keeping commitments or going to church.
Children usually don’t make these bad choices intentionally. Our kids are not black-hearted little demons who want to ruin their lives, or our lives. The bad decisions are most often made because they are blindsided by peer pressure that they had not anticipated and were not prepared for.
There is a simple sequence of things parents can do that can prevent many of these painful and consequential bad decisions.
Starting early when your kids are preschoolers and in the early elementary grades, try to talk a lot with them about decisions, about how fun it is to choose and how we usually make good decisions if we think hard about them. Use the word “consequences” a lot and help kids to see how consequences are tied to decisions. Let young kids make as many decisions as possible for themselves — anything from which shirt to wear to which kind of juice to have for breakfast.
Then, when your child is 9 or 10, have him write the headline, “Decisions I Have Already Made” or “Decisions in Advance” at the back of his journal or diary (something every child should have). Explain that there are two kinds of big decisions — the ones you can’t make until you know all your options and are older (college, marriage, profession, etc.) and the ones that are actually best made in advance (whether to do drugs, whether to cheat on tests, whether to smoke, whether to go to college, etc.).
Get your child excited about making the decisions she can make right now and help her understand that now is a much better time to decide than when she faces the peer pressure that may be there when the choices actually materialize. Ask her if she can think of any “decisions in advance” she wants to write in the special place at the back of her journal. Explain that when she writes one down, she should sign and date it so it’s like a contract or promise to herself.
But then hold off a bit. Even when the child understands the concept of decisions in advance and has one in mind, ask him to wait — not to write down any of those decisions just yet — to think about each one for a week or two.
Say, in essence, “Wait. Before you write it and sign it, let me tell you a story about what might happen to you in a few years.” Then try to create the most difficult possible scenario for the decision he’s proposed. For example, if he’s said his decision in advance is never to do drugs, have him imagine he’s at a party when he’s 16 and a group of his friends wants him to try a pill. “Come on! We’ve all taken one. They make you feel great, and in a couple of hours you will be back to normal” The girl he’s with takes one, and everyone’s looking at him.
What does he do? What does he say? If he seems hesitant and unsure, say, “Let's think a little more about that one before you put it on your list and sign it.” Talk about it a little more, and when he feels sure he could handle the situation and even knows what he would say, tell him “Great. Now I think you’re ready to list it and date it and sign it in your journal.”
What parents are essentially doing is creating a case study or a role-play that prepares children and that will make future difficult situations more familiar and less threatening to them.
Working carefully with a child to build his list of "Decisions in Advance" will not be a guarantee that he will never make a mistake, but it will be a deterrent to bad choices and will make him feel like he has “been here before” and made the decision long before the peer pressure arrived.