Table of Contents

Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter Four - Choosing

6. Develop a family decision-making council

How does your family make up its mind about basic issues like where to go on vacation? what time to set for curfew?

Family decisions provide an excellent training ground for thoughtful group decision-making. You and your children can pose the issue, generate a menu of choices and then apply careful research to compare, contrast and ultimately choose one. By sharing the discussion and review, you increase the likelihood that the group will build consensus around the final decision.

Begin by clarifying the group's goal. In the case of a family vacation, the written goal statement might emerge as something as simple as,

"We want to spend a week together in an interesting place with lots of activities to choose from as well as the chance to settle in and get some rest."

A clear goal statement should be followed by an attempt to agree upon basic selection criteria, recognizing that some of these issues must wait until the end of the decision-making process.

Try simple pairs like these . . .

"Should it be a hot place or an cold place?"

"Should it be a city or out in the country?"

"Do we want to camp or stay in a hotel of some kind?"

If everybody agrees without argument on some of these basic questions, the selection process is simplified. The original goal statement is modified to include the answers.

"We want to spend a week together in a ski resort with lots of activities - a resort which is close enough so that we can save money by driving."

The family can then narrow the search to perhaps a half dozen resorts.

Edward DeBono suggests an excellent system to review such alternatives or options. He calls it PMI. You make one list with three columns for each option under review. The first column is the PLUS column (P), and here you list all of the benefits and advantages you can identify that belong with that option. As a family you follow the rules of brainstorming now, listing all ideas without comment or criticism at this stage so that many ideas will surface. Disagreements over the items can be entertained later.

The second column is the MINUS column (M) where you will list all of the problems, concerns and disadvantages you can attach to that option. Again you allow all responses without comment. The goal is to remove inhibitions and get the contributions flowing freely. Comments may cut off the flow and restrict contributions to obvious and safe issues. The more controversial and unusual the ideas, the better your chances of picking up on something critical but submerged.

The third column is the INTERESTING column (I) where you will list all of your questions, the unknowns that require further research, the issues which are unclear and need more study. This column will help your group expand its study beyond its present knowledge base, avoiding the trap of deciding something out of ignorance. This is your chance to avoid the blind leading the blind.

Remember that this process of filling out PMI sheets is a beginning stage of deciding. After conducting further research, which may be split up among family members, all must put their heads together again to review what has been learned and begin weeding out options which are clearly unattractive.

The hard part may come when you are narrowing down the list to a few prime prospects and you find strong conflict over one or two criteria which relate to basic values differences. As children turn into adolescents this phenomenon becomes ever more likely. Because different people are operating with different preferences, it is nearly impossible to find a location or a solution which makes everyone completely happy.

Teach your child "tie-breakers" - conflict resolution strategies to end deadlocks. One way to resolve such conflicts is to try "enlarging the pie." Instead of fighting over the existing list double your efforts to find a location which meets all needs. Another way is to "split the difference." If you differ over two criteria, let each side win on one of their two key issues. Yet a third way is to "take turns." One side gives in on this trip with the promise that their criterion will be given preference the next time. Flipping a coin may be a last resort.

Some parents shudder at the thought of such group decision-making, holding with the philosophy that the parents make the rules and the decisions, especially about issues such as vacations and rules for behavior.

Especially as children become young adults, they may view such an approach as an arbitrary use of power, and it may well drive a wedge between parent and child. These adolescents will complain that they "can't talk to" their parents, that their parents "don't listen." They may flirt with "marginal compliance," keeping up good behavior on the surface while experimenting with boundary lines in secret.

Given an opportunity to participate in family conferences and decision-making, many young people will help formulate reasonable standards of behavior by which they are willing to abide because they feel a degree of ownership. As long as they are taught how to review the implications of choices early in life, they are more likely to make reasonable decisions about the issues, the temptations and the challenges which will face them as young adults.


If we can teach our children to make up their minds thoughtfully, we have shared a wonderful gift. The highways and byways are littered with the wreckage of those who have taken the easy path, followed the blind or relied upon automatic steering and traditions. Changing times require people who, like Robert Frost in "Two Paths Diverged in a Yellow Wood," take the time to see more than a single path or choice. Our society needs humans with the capacity to weigh alternatives with care, applying the skills of compare and contrast to a complex menu of opportunities and challenges. We will need consumers who shop around rather than buying by impulse, making selections of appliances, automobiles, spouses and presidential candidates with values-based thinking, looking before they leap and testing out the consequences of their decisions before they are set in concrete. A family that nurtures the growth of decision-making as a joint enterprise will find they have made a wise choice for the future.

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DeBono, Edward.

Engelhardt, Tom. "Reading may be harmful to your kids." Harper's: Volume 282, No. 1693, June, 1991, pp. 55-62.

©1991 JMcKenzie

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