Know a kid who is absolutely brilliant but has a knack for doing what my granddad called “knuckle headed” things?

Breaks your $300 blender attempting to power-wash her socks?

Executes a creative, kind-hearted community event that ends with an massive water bill arriving in your mailbox a month later?

Draws a mustache and goatee on his face with a permanent marker the night before a college admissions interview?

How is it that someone so profoundly intelligent and capable can simultaneously fail to see the consequences of their actions? Again and again and AGAIN?


Two Different Types of Intelligence At Play


One person says, “I have an IQ of 143.”

The other, “Mine is 120.”

Clearly, 143 is greater than 120, so the one person is more intelligent than the other, right?


When we look at a person who performs intelligently in some areas but immaturely or unintelligently in others, the IQ model of intelligence falls apart.

All human beings have areas where they perform intelligently and other areas that are not as well developed.

Research has shown that intelligence is not one dimensional. We are not either “smart” or “dumb.” Intelligence is multifaceted.  It also changes under various conditions and can be strengthened through training.

When we examine decision-making, which is one facet of intelligence, we see there are two different types of intelligence at play.

One kind of intelligence involved in decision making is creativity and the other is judgement.

Creativity in this case is the ability to create numerous ideas to address a problem. Many teens who are seen as highly intelligent have excellent creativity.

Judgement is the ability to predict the consequences of implementing a solution and conclude whether the consequences will create benefits that merit implementation.


The Cause of Bad Decisions


When people make bad decisions, they frequently have poor or under-developed judgement skills.

Judgement is extremely difficult to develop, especially in ambiguous circumstances. Good judgement requires experience. You can only learn by trial and error, which requires error. Error causes destruction and feelings of failure, which can be the thing parents and school administrators try to avoid.

When we teach kids to avoid failure and destruction, we can unintentionally create people with bad judgement because we thwart the necessary experience that develops good judgement skills as they learn.

In adolescents, this is compounded by the fact that human brains do not fully form until roughly age 25. This final brain formation biologically signals the beginning of adulthood. The final part of our brains to form is the judgement center.

As a society, we have put 16-25 year-olds into circumstances and expected them to perform as adults when we know full-well that they aren’t equipped to function at that level.

We put them into legal contact with tobacco/drugs/alcohol, behind wheels of cars, into critical combat roles, and expect them to make key decisions about the college & career paths long before they have fully formed the capacity to make such decisions.

Chances are, nothing societally is going to change radically anytime soon. In fact, in spite of all the research, as a society we have continuously increased our expectations and demands on late adolescents.

As parents and others who care for them, what can we do to help?

Here a four mindsets for parents & educators to foster that develop better decision making skills over time.

Remember, parenting and educating is a long-game. Bad decisions handled well now can lead to good decision makers in adulthood.


Allow Room for Mistakes (perhaps a budget allocation, too)


We all make mistakes.

When raising kids, cars will get dented, carpet will get ruined, hearts will get broken and so will curfews. It’s par for the course.

“This is why we don’t have nice things!” Many an exasperated parent and teacher has belted these words to the heavens.

And, yes, this IS why having nice things and kids will only temporarily coexist.

Kids need to know that mistakes and failures are okay. Even more than okay — they are necessary for learning and growing.


Give Praise for Responsibility-taking (however meek)


Kids also need to make mistakes in order to take responsibility.

Whenever they take ownership of mistakes, aim to praise them. Genuinely. You want to positively reinforce any and every effort they make to acknowledge and/or take responsibility for their sphere of influence.


Kid: “I failed my math test.”

Parent: “What? Again? How? Why?”

None of these questions communicate the underlying message that you have faith in the greater learning process at play. Even when you are struggling to keep the faith, you can train your higher-self to step in.

Consider instead:

Kid: “I failed my math test.”

Parent: “Hey, thank you for telling me. That makes me very happy. I’m sure you’re not thrilled about your test grade. What do you think happened?”

Here you’re sharing that the most important thing to you is the maintenance of communication within your relationship. You acknowledge that this test isn’t in-line with their confident & competent vision of themselves. And that you’re not going to jump to any conclusions to blame any one; you’re just ask what could be the cause-effect at play.

Encourage your kids to be self-reflective and take responsibility. Then continue to encourage any idea expressed that moves in the direction of taking further responsibility.


Create Ambiguity (early and often)


One profound casualty of the standardized test legacy of the U.S. educational system in the last 30 years has been students’ abilities to interact with ambiguous information.

Ambiguity arises whenever there is not one correct solution to a problem.

Since she’s not whimpering, how long should I let the dog limp around the house before I call mom?

Will I be happier if I go to college close to home with friends I’ve known my whole life or go to a school where I don’t know anyone?

Should I tell my friend that it bothered me when I saw her cheat off my test or should I just let it go?

Kids need the opportunity to interact with ambiguity and know that real life is filled with “no right answer” situations.

Hypotheticals are great for this, especially in game-style conversations. Late adolescents LOVE to play out hypothetical horrors and moral dilemmas.

When maturity appropriate, engage your kids in conversations like “If a train were heading your way and you saw five people who would die if the train continued forward OR you could push one person to their death to cause the train stop, what would you do?”

Allow them to just play with ideas without moral or ethical judgement from you. There is no right or wrong. Really. It’s all hypothetical. Grapple with them. Toss in the “but what about…” from time to time. Explore together.


Provide a Judgement Sounding Board (not you)


When kids are highly creative while low on the judgement skill set, they need someone to fill in the blanks for them. They need a sounding board.

They don’t respond well, though, when the sounding board is their parent. You end up feeling like their punching bag. And they end up seeing you as the perpetually wet blanket. Teenagers and late adolescents have a tendency to reject what their parents say as a policy. THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO BE RIGHT! That makes them wrong — theoretically.

Do not set yourself up for that.

This is when an aunt/coach/mentor/youth minister/older cousin/sibling can be the pinch-hitter you need on your team.

“Hey, that sounds like a really cool idea. What if you run it past So-and-so? See what he thinks.”

Let So-and-so know ahead of time that you will are depending on them to be the objective sounding board to provide some judgement support for your kid. Let them know that they are in no way on the hook for your kid’s final decision. You’re just asking for them to provide some added guidance because you trust their judgement skills.



Recently a for-profit college put out a emotionally powerful video. While I’m not a fan of the sponsor, I’m a huge fan of the core message it contains. On a chalkboard on a city sidewalk, people were asked to write their biggest regret in life. The video then points out a trend. Most people did not write about a “dumb decision.” Most people wrote of something they did NOT do, did NOT try, did NOT complete.

In the end, these “dumb decisions” of youth rarely change the course of our lives. More often, it is the decisions we make or avoid out of fear that cause the biggest harm.

As parents and influencers of the next generation, we do so much more for them when we coach them to learn from their mistakes — not chastise them for making mistakes.

I wrote the headline of this post to catch your attention, not to add to the chorus of how “kids today are all screwed up.” Making “dumb decisions” have been a rite of passage since human families formed. They are how we grow.

So the next time your kid breaks the window or breaks the internet, see if you can smile a bit and enjoy the chance to parent. They still need you.


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