Children and Choice: Developing Moral Skill

Ben Collage FY

By Guest Writer Chris Knopp

(To learn more about Chris, see his profile on our “Guest Writers” page)


It’s a rainy day so I open the kids’ wardrobe and ask my three boys what they want to play with.  Lego?  Matchbox cars?  Slot cars?  Remote control cars?  Wooden blocks?  Board Games?  Train set?  Jigsaw?  The argument that immediately ensues occupies the next hour and a half.  I’ve learnt a couple of things here – 1. our kids have too much crap and 2. I need to think more carefully about the choices I give my kids.

And it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the same problem – when I finally get an hour or two to myself in the evenings there are so many things I could be doing – read that book, plan that lesson, watch that movie, get an early night, mark those essays, go for a run.   Whatever choice I make, I know I’m going to regret it as there are at least five things I’ve just missed out on.  This is a central concept in Economics known as ‘opportunity cost’.  If one activity has a relative benefit of say, 9 out of 10, and the other five options each rate only 7 out of 10, then it’s fairly obvious which choice we should make.  However, too often we can’t see the “9” we just chose because of the “35” we just missed out on.  With so many choices out there, surely we should be able to feel happy with our decisions and if we’re not, then that’s just another reason to feel bad about ourselves because we didn’t get it right.  I know people who feel like this from making decisions as big as their careers or house purchases, right down to what icecream flavour they chose or what movie they went to. The ability to assess the relative costs or benefits of a decision is not something that comes naturally to any of us, let alone children – like most such skills, we need practice at it.

Pink Choices Quote

Take 2:  “OK boys, – which of these jigsaws are we going to do – the space one, or the butterfly one?”  Immediate consensus and a pleasant 30 minute activity.  Yes, of course I knew they wouldn’t choose the butterflies.  So was it really practice at making decisions?  Well, it was a start.  The boys felt they were in control of their activity, they ended up enjoying it and so had a positive experience from a decision they had made. Providing more options would have been difficult with 3 boys of different ages as many other factors impact on the decision process.  Still, it’s a great management technique for potentially quarrelsome siblings.

But artificially limiting choices is not the way to fully develop this faculty in children.  And the real decisions we need to make in life are seldom so straightforward or trivial.  More complex decisions will need a little more scaffolding from us adults.

 A recent hard decision in our household for one of our children was deciding who to invite to their birthday party.  More specifically, it was about a particular friend who tended to take over and dominate such social occasions making it a less than enjoyable experience for many.  This was by no means a trivial situation.  Issues were rife –  friendship, loyalty, the enjoyment that other friends would have or not, the degree to which our child would enjoy their own birthday, the social expectations of having been invited to their birthday previously, the consequences of not inviting them, strategies to alleviate those consequences, how would our child feel if they weren’t invited, etc etc.  These are decisions that many adults would struggle with.  But as parents it’s important to raise these ideas, in an age appropriate manner, and trust our children to make their own choices.

Such decisions are different to choosing an icecream flavour or what movie to watch, or what activity to engage in on a wet weekend afternoon.  Why?  Because they are ethical situations – they involve other people who will be affected by our actions.  If that is the case, should we really allow our kids to make such decisions or should we artificially manipulate the situation (like the jigsaws) and ensure they make the ‘right’ decision?

Choices quote

I’m sure this is where some of us will diverge and argue a different case.  For myself, however, I can barely decide for myself at times, what is the ‘right’ thing to do.  To make that decision for someone else is beyond me – (public safety, common-sense, and parental responsibilities aside).  If there is such a thing as poor decisions, then our children must experience those consequences directly or no real learning has occurred.  If we protect our children from even making these decisions, let alone their consequences, then we are effectively allowing their moral-skill to atrophy.  We have seen the physical ‘bubble-wrapping’ of a generation of kids – we hardly wish to see the moral equivalent of such an approach by ‘sparing’ our children the opportunity to exercise their moral-will.

I will state this again – there ARE no right answers.  But the right approach is to encourage our children to consider as widely as possible the consequences of their actions on other people.  The choices they make create the people they will become in exactly the same way that we are the sum of our own decisions.  This is what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he stated “we are our choices”.

At any point in time, we can, in theory, choose to change our direction in life.  However, a lifetime of making choices has created a momentum along a certain trajectory that can be very difficult to deflect.  Early practice, practice, and more practice at making these decisions is crucial to setting our momentum along the trajectory that best matches our values.

Ben's Done Choice FY




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