Parents are always looking for the best ways to equip their kids for academic and emotional success while still encouraging them to explore their world, process their feelings, and just have fun. So how do you balance it all? How do you build great-future (and current) students while also fostering their independence and creativity?
The answer is a lot easier than you might think. Kids need autonomy, but they need even more supervision and structure. The best way to strike that balance is through ongoing opportunities to make good choices, and there’s no better way to provide those chances than through decision-making games.
Game theory and decision making games
Game theory is an old and somewhat complicated idea. However, to keep things simple, we condensed into this far-too-short explanation: Here it goes.
When two or more people face a circumstance that includes a known payout or consequence, game theory can help them figure out the most likely results. Clear? Of course not. You can read more about game theory, but just understand that game theory means all participants in something you’re trying to do, have a role in the outcome.
For you, those outcomes might be buying a house, investing in a retirement fund, deciding whether or not to have more children. You know, important things. For your kids, though, we adults often make the mistake of thinking kids’ stuff is just, well, kids’ stuff. But kids can make life-altering mistakes without knowing it, all because they may not have been prepared to examine a situation through the idea of game theory.
Decision-making games: The players see the outcomes
Pretend you’re playing one of those games like Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe you dabbled in it when you were younger (or ridiculed people who did), or perhaps you were a die-hard player. No matter what your experience level with the game may have been, that game and many others like it are prime examples of game theory.
You’re sitting with friends playing a game, and each of your friends has a different role in the game. One is a warrior; one is a cleric, one is a healer, and one is some strange non-human creature with a unique ability. As the person in charge of the game calls out each scenario you encounter on a quest, different players offer different suggestions. Maybe the warrior wants to try to stab the ferocious beast with a sword, or the cleric wants to cast a spell to blind it temporarily. For each decision, the players roll the dice to see what the outcomes are. The sword accidentally falls from the warrior’s hand, and she gets eaten, the spell bounces off the crystals adorning the cave, and the entire group is blinded. You get the idea.
Why decision-making games are relevant to parents
These games are great fun for a lot of people and mind-numbingly stupid to others. However, there’s one undeniable reality about role-playing games of every sort. That is: they require constant decision-making, cooperation, and an ability to discern the best course of action in any situation. Those sound like pretty excellent skills for your child to foster, don’t they?
Kids and Decision making
Unfortunately, decision-making is often the last thing we leave for our kids. We send them out the door each day with demands that they “make good choices,” yet how often do kids actually have the option to think through a situation, decide based on knowledge and experience, and follow through with it? Worse, how regularly do we sweep in and prevent our kids from actually facing the consequences of their decision-making?
The Hard Choices
Too often, kids don’t have many decision-making options other than what outfit they want to wear to school that day or what video game they want to play. As parents, we tend to reserve the hard choices—purchasing those clothes, buying the groceries, mandating which TV programs are suitable and which books our kids read, telling them what time they have to go to bed, even who their friends are—for our more advanced mindset. That means we end up ignoring our children’s wants and needs; we strip away their independence and decision-making ability.
The consequences of Hard Choices
“But I can’t let my son go to school in his swim trunks!” Well, why not? Obviously, he would be ridiculed, sent home from school if he had failed to include a shirt, and probably very cold during the day. You might end up losing a day of work when the principal wants a conference. But was your son harmed? No. Did he learn a valuable lesson about making better clothing choices? Hopefully, but maybe not.
“My daughter is cranky and can’t pay attention in class if I don’t make her go to bed by eight o’clock!” Is she ? Or is she reacting to the way you’re speaking since you know she’s tired? Is she not paying attention in class, or is she refusing to do well because you’re setting expectations that she can’t meet? It would be far more useful for you to say, “Okay, you don’t want to go to bed at eight o’clock, and that’s fine. But here are the expectations I have for you, regardless of when you go to bed. You will speak to everyone pleasantly, do your same chores without complaint, and finish schoolwork. If you don’t do those things, you’ll have to go back to an earlier bedtime.”
Getting Familiar with Hard Choices
But letting your child wear a swimsuit to school or stay up longer than they should is a massive gamble with their peer relationships, academic success, and family harmony.
In a world where kids have little experience with decision-making and often even less experience with consequences for their decisions, we have to look for intentional opportunities to give them both experience and harmless outcomes. That’s precisely where decision-making games come in. They exist at a magical intersection of decisions, consequences, lack of actual harm, and fun.
Decision-Making Games vs. Real Life
If the warrior and the cleric argue over the best course of action when it comes to slaying the dragon, what’s the real consequence for making a poor choice or not acting quickly enough? Someone probably gets eaten. If they’re lucky, the healer in their group rolls a high enough score to save their life. Sadly, consequences, in reality, aren’t so easily undone.
But instead of being an excuse to avoid decision-making games, that speaks to the precise reason why frequent access to these kinds of books or games should be available to all kids. Fight that dragon, jump over that wide river, use your potion to revive that dead creature, whatever. Let kids experience tremendous amounts of practice at making the best possible choice and dealing with the outcome, while not forcing them into real-world situations in which lasting consequences can happen. Over time, young players will gain the sort of experience they need to face real-world decisions head-on.
Climb the ravine? Oops, it was covered with plants that grab intruders’ limbs and hang them upside down until a different monster comes to eat them. Build a raft from these logs to get across the river? Wow, you made it just in time for giant slugs to rise out of the mud and attack. Look for a secret entrance to the cave? Yikes, you were standing on it the whole time, and it just opened beneath your feet, plunging you into a pit with forty-foot-high walls.
How Decision-making Games Help kids in Real Life
Hopefully, none of those things is ever going to happen to your child. But look at the first scenario. When the person in charge tells the players, there’s a ravine, and your child rushes in to climb it, did they stop to look for sentient plants?
Decision-making games make kids aware
When your child’s basketball rolls into the street, will they also stop to look for traffic? In the second scenario, your very diligent child builds a raft to cross the river, a remarkable use of tools and logic! But did they look at their map first to see if it warned of any dangers? Likewise, did they read the label on the bottle of cleaning solution to make sure it was safe to use?
Finally, they searched and searched for the opening to a cave, but how much time will they waste looking for their backpack in the morning before school, only to find it by the front door where you were kind enough to leave it for them?
Decision-making games make Kids cooperative
The chance to test their mental prowess in games also extends to group dynamics and problem-solving. Did one of the other players say, “Wait, we need to check the map for dangerous plants or giant slugs,” and did your child blow them off or agree? When your child is trying to heat some snacks in the microwave, think of how they would respond when their sibling says, “Whoa, you can’t put that metal pot in the microwave.” Would they tell their brother to shut up, or would they look back and say, “Ugh, let me get a glass bowl?”
Being aware of actions and their consequences are the power of decision-making games in every kid’s life, no matter what type of game they play.
How Problem-Solving Activities Also Improve Decision Making
It would be incredible if there were one type of game that every kid could play, which would automatically lead to better decision-making ability. There’s not one, we’ve checked! But at the same time, some kids struggle with setting the proper boundaries between game playing and real life. No, we don’t mean kids cannot discern fact from fiction, a game from reality. While that is a problem for some people, the real issue is this: how do you translate awesome role-playing games into better decision-making skills for your kids? Even harder, how do you do it at every single maturity level in an age-appropriate way?
Problem Solving: The Bridge to Reality
Here is where focused problem-solving activities come in. The decision-making games or books you provide for your kids are an excellent tool, but at some point, there has to be a bridge to reality-based decision making. That’s where you come in.
You’re watching a TV show with your kids. It’s quiet; everyone’s just pretty much winding down for the evening. So when a scenario appears on-screen, turn and say, “Quick! What should he do?” Make it comical if you want, and if the show lends itself to your humor. You could take a more serious turn in a dramatic display: “Wow, what would you do if that happened?” or “What should she do?”
Problem Solving: Three Steps
Whenever you’re proposing a big decision, you can play a fun game called “Three Steps”. Present the kids with a scenario and ask them what they should do. Then reply directly with, “And then what will happen?” and follow that up with “And then what will happen?” Eventually, you’ll see that they get backed into a corner by their own decision-making efforts, and they want a do-over.
You can also be more intentional about your efforts to help your kids grow as capable people who make good choices. Let them help plan the weekly grocery shopping and the weekly menu; they may like the chance to voice their opinions. Also, they’ll learn a great deal about how much of your money goes into the household budget. Are you making a large purchase soon? Let them tell you what features the new car should have and why. Listen to them, write those things down, and talk them out. You’ll notice that throughout the conversation, “sunroof” and “turbo booster” might morph into “side impact airbags” and “plenty of room in the back to carry Mike’s trombone.”
Online Decision-Making Games for Kids
When looking for some of these great decision-making games for kids, you have to consider a few things. Think about your child’s age, interest level, attention span, and current social ability. A younger child might enjoy a board game with their parents, but an older teen may like an online game that lets them interact with other players. Some young players might find a mystical fantasy-style game very intriguing, while other kids would be bored to death.
When looking for online games, though, remember the most important safety considerations. Many of these games require you or your child to set up an account, which can lead to hacking and identity theft. Finally, if you’re allowing your child to play a game with other online players, you’ve got to monitor that game to prevent predators and other malicious players from causing harm.
But here are some highly-recommended online decision-making games that allow kids to hone their skills while having consequence-free fun:
WebkinzYes, believe it or not, Webkinz is still around! Ganz announced in 2019 that they would not be making more of the plush animals. But, the virtual animals that live in your child’s Webkinz account are still active. The games are fun, and the responsibility for taking care of the pets and spending their earned virtual money allows them to make good choices, including ones with long-term effects.
MinecraftThis is another fun, fairly consequence-free game that lets your child be creative and use their decision-making skills. Some kids don’t’ enjoy the different views, as they might have trouble interpreting the world they’re building when it’s in two-dimensions. Nevertheless, it’s a top-rated game for both boys and girls because of the creativity it fosters.
FortniteParents tend to have mixed emotions about Fortnite because the violence level earned it a T for Teen rating. However, the characters in the game are very cartoonish. Therefore, while there is violence, it is not at all realistic looking.
Animal CrossingKind of like a hyped-up version of those Tamagotchi virtual pets that everyone had to keep alive in the ’90s. As well, this game allows for interaction and world-building. It’s pretty pricey, though, since it’s on the Nintendo Switch handheld platform.
There are several other great resources for decision-making games. However, parents need to do their homework in finding one that appeals to their kids and meets their safety requirements.
Final Thoughts on How to Improve Decision Making
I once heard someone complain that people today just don’t have common sense. I replied, “There’s no such thing as common sense.” And it’s true. No one is born knowing what choice to make, what decision to follow, or what advice to listen to. The real definition of common sense is “experience, whether you learned it for yourself or from watching others around you.”
Decision-making games give kids that much-needed experience, while also broadening their understanding of group dynamics, teamwork, and consequences. If you want to help your kids develop a vital skill that will help them in every aspect of life. Then, get them started playing!