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By Tom Brown

A first-year college student sits with his academic advisor, trying to decide on courses for the next term. After an in-depth discussion of options and how these fit with the student’s expressed personal interests and academic and career goals, the advisor asks which courses he has decided to take.

Instantaneously, the student whips out his cell phone and hits speed dial. “Mom, I’m here with my advisor and this is what we have discussed,” he says. “What do you think I should do?”

This scene reportedly plays out on campuses across the nation, as many students seem unable, or unwilling, to make independent decisions about courses, majors, or life beyond college. An important developmental task for young people is to move from dependence, to independence, to interdependence.

Many educators expect students to take a careful, deliberate approach to important decisions, such as which college to attend, what major to choose, and what combination of courses is most consistent with their interests, goals, and values. However, for the many students who have been “college prep” since pre-school, few have had real opportunities to make meaningful academic choices. Consequently, students often make impulsive decisions, even when the stakes are high.

In a 2009 Psychology Today article, Dr. Jim Taylor concludes, “Decision making is one of the most important skills children need to develop.”

Dr. Taylor, a University of San Francisco adjunct professor and recognized expert in the psychology of parenting, suggests that even making bad decisions can enable young people to learn from these experiences in a safe setting. This can lead to better decision-making in the future.

Making choices is part of everyday life. Successful people have learned to make effective decisions, and teaching children to make good choices should start early. Certainly, parents can’t simply allow younger children to make all of their own decisions: “Vegetables or ice cream for dinner? Would you prefer to do your homework, or continue playing Candy Crush?”  

Dr. Tamar Chansky, a child psychologist and author of “Freeing Your Child from Anxiety,” advises that having too many options can prove overwhelming for many people, regardless of age. For younger children, Dr. Chansky recommends narrowing down the choices to a few and letting children decide. Other experts propose that parents offer children the choice between two parent preferred options that are also appealing to the child. For example, would you prefer to practice piano, or do your homework first? What snack would you like to take for lunch tomorrow, an apple, banana, or grapes?

Dr. Taylor suggests that parents teach older children to ask several key questions as they make choices: First, “Why do I want to do this?” An accompanying question might be, “Is this something I want to do, or that someone else wants me to do?”

The next question should be, “What are my options and are some choices better than others?” Dr. Taylor advises that parents set high expectations and enforce tough consequences for poor decisions, which can lead older children to think twice before acting unwisely.

The final question, “Is this decision in my best interests?” can empower teens to resist and reject the pressure of popular culture and peers. This enables them to make decisions that are best for them, both in the short and long term.

As college students engage in academic and career planning, they must think deeply to understand their interests (passions!), aptitudes, and values. They should use campus resources — career center, academic advisors, faculty, and alums — to learn more about the skills required for various careers and the transferable skills developed through various programs. Employers are most often looking for skills rather than majors. Students should then plan curricular and co-curricular programs and course schedules that will move them toward their goals.

The California Career Zone (cacareerzone.org/index.html) is a resource for students to do self-assessment, explore various career families, and increase their awareness of financial matters, including the earnings required to support various lifestyles.

Kay Kimball Gruder observes that students who become more competent decision makers are more involved and invested in the outcomes of their educational experiences. She counsels parents to resist the urge to impose solutions, smooth the journey, or say what they would have done.

Decision making is a skill. Like any skill, it requires practice and occasional setbacks to get better and grow stronger. The sooner young people get to make choices, the more likely they are to experience the satisfaction of having decided what they want to with their lives.

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean@tbrownassociates.com.)

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