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Responsible Decision Making

How can I help my child . . . ?

  • learn how to make good decisions?
  • build their self-esteem and sense of self?
  • see the impact their choices have on themselves and others?
  • be set up for making more difficult decisions as they get older?

According to CASEL (Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning) responsible decision making is “the ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.”  This includes the capacity to consider safety (mental and physical) and think through the positive and negative outcomes of ones’ choices.  

Some key components of responsible decision making are:

  • Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness
  • Learning how to make a good judgment after analyzing information
  • Thinking through the consequences of one’s actions
  • Thinking about ways to solve personal and social problems
  • Using critical thinking both inside and outside of the classroom
  • Thinking about how one can contribute to their own well-being as well as their family’s and their communities.

As kids progress through elementary school they will be asked to make more and more decisions and when they approach middle school some of them become high stakes.  That is why it is important for children to learn responsible decision making skills at an early age.  For kindergartners, this might look like choosing who to play with, what foods to eat, or what to wear to school.  By around six years old,  they begin to understand and respond to others’ thoughts and feelings.  As a result, they are also becoming  aware of how their actions affect others.  Discussion, responsible decision making and allowing children a lot of opportunities for practice will help them hone this important skill.   

At most ages, children are also able to reflect on their decisions to some degree.  For example, a five-year-old who hits a child and makes them cry can process that experience with the support of an adult.  An older child can reflect on their decision to not study after they do poorly on a test.  It is important to note that some neurodiverse children may have a harder time with this skill and may need extra support and practice. 

Why it Matters

When children make good decisions, it builds their self-esteem and confidence.  They see that their positive actions have a direct result on their happiness and progress.  This can give them a sense of control over their life and their well-being.  Alternatively, some studies suggest that some of the anxiety and depression that many children  experience is due to their inability to think critically for themselves and make choices that positively affect them and others. Some reasons that children make poor decisions are that they:

  • do not stop to think about the consequences
  • experience pressure from their peers to do something
  • think it was fun or funny at the time
  • are seeking some kind of revenge
  • don’t have the ability to stop their impulses

When children have a chance to practice making good choices at an early age and reflect on their choices, they will be more likely to use their skills when they are older and when the decisions have a bigger impact on their lives. 

Check In:

Read through the following statements and identify which ones you feel your child is strong in and which ones may need to work on:

My younger child ……..

  • Can easily make a choice when boundaries are set
  • Can identify good or poor decisions
  • Can talk about why a decision was good or poor
  • With support, can think through how their decisions affect themselves and others

My older child (can do all of the above and also…)

  • Feels comfortable making their own decisions on topics that relate to their life
  • Comes to me before and/or after making a decision
  • (with support) Brainstorms the pros and cons to a decision
  • (with support) Reflects on how their decisions affected them and others
  • (with support) Repairs.makes amends after making a decision that affects someone negatively
  • Recognizes how they can affect their own well-being
  • Recognizes how they can affect the well-being of those in their family
  • Recognizes how they can affect the well-being of their community

Connect & Communicate:

Being able to make good decisions is a process that takes practice and gets better over time. A lot of the time, young children are impulsive and do not have the long-term vision for the impact of their choices.  That is why it is important for the adults in their lives to slowly allow for more decision making and to also help them see that what they do not may have benefits or consequences down the road:

  1. Give them opportunities to make family decisions.  This may mean what kind of dog to get and brainstorming the ways that your child will contribute to the responsibilities.  They may also be in charge of selecting what is for dinner a couple times a week.  This not only develops their sense of belonging, but also gives them a chance to practice making a decision.
  2. Practice Making Decisions.  These types of decisions can happen every day.  For example, they can choose which park they want to go to, which friend to have over or what movie to watch with the family.  You can also give them a time limit so that they don’t keep others waiting while they make their choice.
  3. Allow mistakes.  Part of learning how to make good decisions is dealing with mistakes.  Help your child process and learn from their mistakes so they know that this is a normal part of life.
  4. Expose them to the real world.  Sometimes the instances they experience out in public are the best ways for them to learn about good and bad decisions.  For example, if you see someone smoking on a corner and your child notices, you can talk about the risks of this behavior.
  5. Give them responsibilities.  In order for children to see themselves as responsible people who make good decisions, they need to have opportunities to show what they can do.  Provide them with a short list of things they are responsible for doing around the house. 
  6. Help them understand age-appropriate choices:  Some choices they will not be ready to make on their own.  Talk about what those are, when they might be ready and why they are not there yet. 

As your child gets older, there may be some decisions that require more thought before making.  In those instances, you can use some of the following starters to begin:

Start the Conversation:

Prior to making a decision

What is the decision?
What are some of the pros and cons?
How might it affect others?
How will it affect you?
Why do you want to make this choice?
Will this help you?
What are some other options?

Likewise, there may be decisions they make that were not good and you will want to help them process the consequences.  One way to get children to internalize the lessons learned from making a decision is to help them reflect.  Here are some conversation starters to do that.

After making a decision

Why did you choose that? (in a non-blaming tone)
How did it affect you?  How did it affect others?
What could you have done differently?
Was that the best choice?  What might have been a better choice?

For older children,  there are other steps parents and caregivers can take to help their child  have good judgment and decision making.   

Provide guidance and communication

Talk about what makes a situation or decision risky.  Set clear expectations for the types of decisions they should make in different situations 

Identify the problem

Help them explain the problem in their own words and talk about why it is challenging and/or risky.

Brainstorm pros and cons

Talk through the possible positive and negative outcomes on your child, their peers, family members or on others in their community.

Create a plan to move forward

Discuss ways of proceeding with making the decision.

Discuss potential difficult situations

Talk about problems that may arise and ways to get out of them.  Help them practice ways of refusing things like teasing someone, taking something that is not theirs or doing something they know their parents would not approve of.

Be available

Make sure they know they can call you if a real or perceived emergency comes up. Reassure them that you will not judge their behavior but that they can trust and confide in you. 

Teach about peer pressure

Explain that doing the right thing is not always the popular thing.  Encourage them to find friends who share similar values and interests.

Promote good self-esteem

Older children are less likely to succumb to peer pressure if they have a strong sense of self.  Encourage them to develop their own values, opinions and to make choices on their own.  Also include them in decisions made by the family. 

Use literacy and media to discuss challenging situations

Characters in books and TV shows often face conflict and challenging moments.  Use those examples to discuss ways of coping and making hard choices.


Two Options:  For really young kids, you can start helping them make decisions by giving them two options for any decision.  For example, “Do you want to wear your purpose tennis shoes or brown boots?”  This gives them some autonomy and responsibility for their decisions, but also makes the choices not too overwhelming.

“What would you do?” Activity:

One way to help coach your child  to  make more challenging decisions is to do this activity that uses scenarios.  The following will give you some ideas on where to start, but you can create any situation you would like to discuss with your child:

  • You notice that your friend is teasing another friend at school and the one being teased is crying.  What would you do?
  • Your friend tells you to take some chocolate from the drawer at your house even though your mom said you must always ask first.  What would you do?
  • A stranger comes up to you and asks if you want to see a puppy in her car.  What would you do?
  • A boy asks if he can kiss you on the school playground.  What would you do?
  • A friend gives you a hug even though you said you didn’t want one right now.  What would you do?

These situations can be any that you feel your child may experience, or they can come from other people who have had to deal with them.  The point is to gauge where your child is at and start a conversation around some of these important topics and offer strategies for how they can deal with them.

Provide a Visual for Decision Making:  Here is an idea for helping kids see a decision making process visually.  Use this or adapt it and keep it somewhere you and the whole family can refer to:

Making a Difficult Decision Worksheet (for older elementary school children)

This worksheet has a graphic organizer that walks children through a decision they have to make by thinking about all the options and outcomes.  They can use this on their own or with a trusted adult as a guide to help them make a good choice.

Explain your Choice:  When the adults in their lives talk about decisions they are making and why, this can be a valuable lesson in how to make hard choices.  Caregivers can model this behavior and talk through their own process to give their children insights and a template for how to do it themselves. Find opportunities to talk about important decisions that you  are making.

Boss for an hour:  Allow your child to be the boss for an hour out of the day.  This can help them feel their own power. Make sure to set boundaries and safety nets so that no one gets hurt and then enjoy seeing what your child does in their new role.  NOTE:  This can also be done from just 15 minutes.  Do what feels best for your family. 

Step-by-step Decisions:  You can use these four steps to help children make better decisions.  

  1. Ask “Why do you want to do this?”
  2. Ask “What are your options for this decision?”
  3. Ask “What are the consequences of this action?”
  4. Ask “Is this the best option for me and those involved?”

Contact & Collaborate:

Your child’s school along with local community organizations and other parents are great places to connect with for additional ways to support your child’s social development: 

  • Find out if your school has a program that helps students deal with peer pressure.
  • Help your child establish a connection with their guidance counselor. Set up a meeting or reach out by phone. Make sure your child feels comfortable going to their office when they have questions or concerns about decisions or peer pressure.
  • Join a local parent group on social media.
  • Stay connected to your child’s friends’ parents so that you can communicate about what is happening in their peer groups.
  • Have conversations with parents of your child’s friends.  Communicate with them your family’s rules and decision making style.  “When my child is at home we expect…..”

Continue Learning:

Child Mind Institute (website):  Helping Kids Make Decisions

Be You (website):  Decision-making Early Childhood

The Art of SEL (podcast)  Responsible Decision Making

The Next Right Thing (podcast):  How to Help Children Make Decisions

How to Help Kids with Autism Make Decisions (YouTube Video):

May Institute (article):  Helping Children with Special Needs Express Preferences and Make Choices

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