Decision-Making: The “Anti-Supposed To” Manifesto

Any mom or teacher can tell you that “supposed to” questions are common throughout the day.

  • Is there supposed to be a blank space between each paragraph?
  • Are we supposed to wash the dishes in the left or right side of the sink?
  • Are we supposed to write on both sides of the page?
  • How is my student supposed to store her literature assignments?
  • Are we supposed to use cursive?
  • Are you supposed to send flowers?
  • Are you supposed to leave two spaces after a period when you type? (NO! Absolutely not!)
  • What am I supposed to wear?

Some “supposed to” questions are practical and necessary and deserve simple, practical answers. At other times, the question can be about something that is subjective or something that has no one right answer. In the worst-case scenario, “spozed to” questions can be an effort to get everything exactly right in order to avoid ever making a mistake.

Do what you can with what you have, right where you are. It's all you can do.

“Supposed to” can be crippling

Enough, already! Sometimes you’re just supposed to do what needs to be done in the best way you know how. It is important that children learn to make simple decisions for themselves. Too many “supposed tos” and they become afraid of making mistakes. Worse, they can lose the initiative to make decisions or try new things because they believe there’s only one right way to do anything. What a mental prison!

Decisions and mistakes

Mistakes are good. Mistakes help people learn how to make better decisions, and the best time to practice making decisions is when children are young. If they practice making simple decisions at home, the small, recoverable mistakes made within the family can help them learn. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”

Learning to make good decisions is a lot like learning to walk. Babies do a lot of creeping, crawling, and falling before they are walking well. If you tried to keep them safe by never letting them out of the crib, you’d end up with a disabled adult. If you never allow your children the freedom to make small decisions and fall when necessary, they may be safe, but they’ll be crippled.

Some rules matter; others don’t

There are times in life when you must follow basic rules (only number 2 pencils for the SAT; no scary stuff on airplanes; file your taxes on time). There are other times when there is room to practice personal decisions, learning to weigh ability, efficiency, personality type, budget, and other variables.

To limit choices to “that’s the way it’s always been done,” or “you do it this way because it’s the way I like to do it,” is to cripple an individual’s ability to think clearly and make choices that are best for the circumstances. Children need the opportunity to practice thinking through small questions such as those above, so that they will have experience in examining options and making wise choices when more important decisions arise.

Decision-making with chores

One of the areas where we encouraged decision-making practice with our boys was in the area of household help. Because we all lived in the home, every family member participated in maintaining it, as they do in most families. During the process of teaching a new task such as window washing, I would show the boys what the outcome should look like, and teach them how to achieve the completed task.

Once they had learned how to achieve the desired result — streak-free, smudge-free windows in this case — they were free to adapt the method in any way as long as the appropriate result was achieved. When we set a standard for the task but did not control the way in which they achieved the result, the boys were free to own the task and develop systems that worked for them as well as mine worked for me.

Learning to think, not simply do

Institutional schools have an assembly line approach that makes for a lot of “supposed tos” that are unnecessary in the real world. If you attended an institutional school, beware that you don’t pass along those crippling limitations to your children. Instead, encourage them to learn and grow, acknowledging that while they’ll occasionally make mistakes, it’s okay. They are more likely to remember lessons learned from decisions they’ve made, than they are to learn anything from “because I said so.”

All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.
Winston Churchill

Remember the old saying that “practice makes perfect”? You and your children won’t always make perfect decisions, no matter how much practice you have, but I promise that practicing on the small decisions will help you make better decisions when the big questions arise.

It’s time to let go of artificial or other people’s “supposed tos” and to help your children begin the practice of thinking clearly and making thoughtful decisions. Start with small things (it’s a small matter if the decision will be irrelevant in less than a year), then allow increasing decision-making freedom based on the wisdom of decisions already made. As you watch your grown children confidently make beneficial decisions, you’ll be glad you got off the “supposed to” express!


1 Response

  1. March 31, 2009

    […] eternal “supposed to’s” on decision-making? Escape the trap! Read and comment on The “Anti-Supposed To” Manifesto at Taking Time for Things that […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.