Parenting nine children through life requires a lot of “stuff”! Through it all we must have thought of literally a thousand ideas to try to make things work better. Some had to be tailored to an individual kid and some we figured needed to apply to the whole bunch whether they like it or not. About 20 of those ideas actually worked. But if I had to pick just one that really made the biggest difference it might be this: teaching kids, especially adolescents and teenagers to make good decisions in advance.
My husband Richard and I have had the opportunity to teach families all over the world. How we got there still amazes us. It was guided by Heaven! We make presentations to families on how to improve their family skills, establish family mission statements, have family meetings and organize a family infrastructure. One year we had the fun experience of being in Istanbul, Turkey. There we found families from vastly varied religions who loved each other and were striving to do their best, just as we do in our own church. On this particular occasion the parents were joined for the last hour by their adolescent children 12-18.
Our little workshop with them was about teaching those budding teenagers how to make good decisions. We started by suggesting to the parents that they give their children a special journal, perhaps even inscribed with their name, where they could record their life experiences… but that they should first have them turn to the last page and put a title at the top that says, DECISIONS I HAVE MADE IN ADVANCE. We then suggest that they talk through with their kids in a private one-on-one session, the important things that they can decide right now to make their lives happier and safer for the future.
It’s fun to get them thinking at first about decisions they can make now by laughing with them about things they can’t decide right now like whom they are going to marry or where they’re going to be in 2020. Then we get them thinking about things that they can decide about right now. The things they come up with usually involve honesty, drugs, going to college, smoking, alcohol and pre-marital sex.
We suggest that parents challenge their kids to choose something that they feel confident they can decide to do or not to do….right now. When the adolescent finds a decision he/she wants to make for sure i.e.”I will never smoke” it should be recorded on that last page of the journal. It should be formally signed and dated, even sealed with sealing wax to make it more binding if necessary. It then becomes that child’s personal pact with himself. He/she then owns that decision, which is so much better than all the preaching and cajoling, counseling and rewarding that a parent can do. !
On this night, we chose a darling 12 year old boy named Andrew from the audience as our “guinea pig” and asked him about what he felt he could write on his page about a decision he could make in advance. He immediately said, “I will never take drugs.” When asked if he was absolutely sure, he said, “Yes, I’m sure.” He was ready to write it down, sign and seal it.
“But wait Andrew” we said, this could be harder than your realize right now. Project yourself ahead about 5 years and imagine that you are at a party with the most popular girl in the school who you really like. All your best friends are there and this amazing girl opens up her hand to you and shows you a little white pill and urges you to try it. She tells you that everyone at the party has taken one, that you’ll feel totally left out if you don’t take it and that you’ll have the best time of your life if you just try it! She tells you that it just makes you feel fabulous in just a few minutes. What would you do?”
Andrew thought for a moment and then with a smile he said, “I would just say, ‘You know, I promised myself that I would never take anything like that when I was 12 years old. Would you want me to break that promise?’
Beautiful! What a guy! Having that answer firmly in his mind will be a huge advantage to him as he enters the scary world of adulthood. When that actually happens, which it most likely will, he is ready with his answer!
Just as an aside, when we asked him whether or not he could promise himself that he would never cheat on a test in school, he hesitated. It felt as though it was already too late on that one and he’d have to reconsider that before he could write it down. With giggles from the audience, he promised that he would consider that and let us know his answer.
Working with our own children on their “Decisions in Advance” was a process over several months for each child. We talked about each decision one at a time and posed “worse case scenarios” that might be stumbling blocks to their decisions. It is one of the most valuable things we have ever done. They had answers ready for tough situations. The decision was already made. It has been an anchor in many tough situations that has kept them rooted and helped them dodge many an unexpected bullet in their growing up years. When we really help our kids think through their own decisions, it gives them ownership of their own goals instead of it being your goals for them. Once they make the decisions without feeling that they’ve been pushed or forced or lectured, they own them and the likelihood of follow through, though not guaranteed, rises significantly.
Linda Eyre is the mother of nine, grandmother of 18. Her mission statement includes empowering mothers to be "Empowerers". As a co-founder of home-based Joy Schools 30 years ago, she has since authored or co-authored with her husband and daughters many books on parenting and especially the joys and trials of Motherhood...most remembered of which is: I Didn't Plan to be a Witch. She and her husband are worldwide speakers and advocates for the family.