We meet so many families that have gone through so much worry and grief because of a single bad decision that one of their children has made. Sometimes these disastrous choices involve drugs or sex or un-thinkingly 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, not going on a mission, or not keeping commitments or going to church.
Children don’t intentionally make these bad choices because they are black-hearted little demons that want to ruin their lives, or our lives. The bad decisions are most often made because kids are blind-sided by peer pressure that they had not anticipated and were not prepared for.
There is a simple sequence of things you can do that can prevent many of these painful and consequential bad decisions.
First of all, starting early when they are preschoolers and in the early elementary grades, try to talk a lot with children about decisions…about how fun they can be and how important they are. Use the word “consequences” a lot and help them 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 the child is nine or ten, at the back of his journal or diary (something every child should have) have him write the headline, “Decisions I Have Already Made” or “Decisions in Advance.” 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 him excited about making the decisions he can right now, and help him understand that now is a much better time to make them than when he faces the peer pressure that may be there when the decisions come up. Ask him if he’s got any decisions in advance that he wants to write in the special place at the back of his journal. Explain that when he writes one down, he should sign his signature by it and date it…so it’s like a contract or promise to himself.
But then hold him 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.
When he comes up with one, 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 sixteen and a group of his friends want 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—everyone’s looking at him—what does he do? What does he say? If he seems hesitant and unsure, say “Lets 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.”
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 role played the decision long before the peer pressure arrived.