How Children Make Decisions

Have you ever wondered why some kids are picky eaters and others willingly try anything you offer them?  Maybe you have one child who absolutely loves workbooks and another who thinks paper and pencil tasks should be outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could get inside our children’s heads now and then and see what is really driving their decision-making process?  I’ll share a few glimpses my children have shared with me over the years and you can come along, armed with your sense of humor and willingness to try and see things through a child’s eyes.

There was a time when all three of my children loved the “drumstick” part of chicken.  Since I could purchase a package of drumsticks at the store I thought it was wonderful that they could all have their favorite piece without fighting over which two get the drumsticks and who has to choose a different piece.  This worked out beautifully for a period of time, until one day all three children announced that they would no longer eat chicken drumsticks.  I was baffled, because as far as I could tell nothing had changed.  I bought the same brand I always had, prepared it the same way I always did, only now instead of eagerly eating the drumsticks the children were turning up their noses at this formerly sought after food.  It turns out that those noses were the very key to their sudden reversal in their attitudes about eating chicken.  After some careful questioning (okay, more like Mom’s Inquisition) I found out that as the drumsticks were cooking my son had wrinkled up his nose and told his sisters that the cooking chicken smelled like Shadow, our dog, when he was wet.  If you’ve never smelled a wet dog, please take my word for it when I say that even a clean, wet dog does not smell pleasant.  I’m not sure why that is, but once you have that scent memory in your mind and it becomes associated with a certain food, you surely will not be eager to eat that food item again for quite some time – if ever.

Not only are some childhood decisions based on smells, but vision plays a role in their decision making as well.  I have vivid recollections of handing my daughter a page of math problems only to have her shrink back and refuse to take it as if I were extending a tarantula toward her and expecting her to cuddle it. Without hesitation she would pronounce that the work I was offering her was too hard and would take forever for her to complete.  It took me some time, but I eventually realized that it was not the difficulty of the work or even the number of math problems that was causing my daughter’s reluctance.  It was simply the amount of ink on the page that was overwhelming to her.  She didn’t even need to see what was actually written on the page to know that the amount of print represented more time and effort than she felt she could handle.  We were able to work around this by enlarging the print, covering up all problems except the one she was working on, and focusing on one problem at a time.  Without being visually overwhelmed, my daughter was able to complete all of the work.   When I learned that my daughter was making decisions based on how the page looked to her, I could re-arrange and modify the assignment to make it appear more visually manageable.  It wasn’t the content on the page; it was how the page actually looked that was intimidating my daughter.

If your children are old enough to explain their decision-making process it can offer valuable insight into how they make decisions.  For example, long after my son was past the picky eater stage in his development he occasionally refused to even try certain foods.  I would ask him how he knew he wouldn’t like it if he hadn’t even tasted it.  One time his response was to shrug his shoulders and tell me that “It’s colored funny and looks chunky.”  This particular food offering was a dip that had some small pieces of red and green pepper mixed in.  Since my son is colorblind I’m not sure what it looked like to him, but the appearance was enough to suggest to his brain that he might not like it and should proceed with extreme caution or else retreat.  The appearance combined with his past experiences with certain textures and tastes influenced my son’s decision to decline this particular experience.

We know that young children often learn through hands-on experiences, but I think “multi-sensory” is a more accurate description.  Children learn and make decisions based on what they see, smell, taste, touch, and hear.  Much of this type of learning is incidental rather than deliberately taught.  Children are not bound by logic or mature reasoning as much as by impressions and past experiences.  My children did eventually eat chicken drumsticks again, and with maturation were able to express what was influencing the decisions they made.  It seems obvious but is so easy to forget that children don’t necessarily think the way we do as adults. As we teach them to learn our perspectives they can teach us to see things the way they do.  It’s a fresh, sometimes bewildering, and funny way to look at an experience.  Learn it, laugh with it, and work with it!

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