Teaching Children About Agency

Mormon FamilyAgency is the right to choose for ourselves. In this rapidly-changing world, children need to be taught moral values  and then learn how to internalize them and to make moral decisions even when a parent isn’t watching. They must also be able to predict consequences and to use their understanding of consequences and morality in the decision-making process. Following is a family night lesson on agency for families.

Learn how to hold a family night.

Attention Activity: Give each person in the family a card that lists a choice that could be made. Make them vary in importance, and give the easiest choices to young children. Create questions appropriate for the ages and needs of your family. Examples: Which would you choose: chocolate or vanilla cupcakes? What would you choose for dinner tonight: Cookies, ice cream and cake or pasta, a salad and fresh fruit? What career would you rather have: Teacher or doctor? Which would you rather do: Go to a party with underage drinking where everyone gets arrested or go to a party that is less exciting, but safer and leaves you with a peaceful feeling?

Be sure you know who has which question. Begin by asking the person with the least important choice to go first. Let each person read the question, or have it read to them. Let them answer the question and then ask if the decision matters. Does it have long-term consequences? Could it affect the rest of your life? If so, how?

Help them see that each question has increasing significance. The first of the sample questions doesn’t matter at all. Either choice is equally good or bad. The dinner decision will result in a tummy ache and loss of nutrition if the wrong choice is made, but if not repeated regularly, is relatively unimportant. If it were a daily occurrence, of course, it would be very damaging. The third question has a significant impact on the person’s life, but neither answer is morally better than the other. The last question could impact a child’s entire life, and for that reason, the choice matters greatly.

Introduce the Value: Tell the family that agency is the right to choose for ourselves. God gave us this right, but He expects us to learn how to use it well. Ask them how they learned to make choices through their life. Offer some examples to help them: How did they learn not to run into the street without an adult, or later, without carefully looking both ways? How did they learn to do the things God wants them to do?

Children have limited agency if they have adults who care about them. Why do they think parents don’t let children do anything they want? (They don’t know right from wrong. They don’t have experience understanding consequences.) Loving parents give children gradual agency, as they learn to make good choices. The years of childhood and young adulthood are times to learn to make wise choices before a person is an adult and must make them alone.

Learn the Skills: You will need a white board or large piece of paper for the next activity, so you can write answers.

Ask: How do you know whether or not something is a good choice? What do you need to think about as you make the choices?

Gordon B. Hinckley suggested three questions to ask yourself when you’re deciding whether or not to do something: 1. Does it enrich the mind? 2. Does it discipline and strengthen the body? 3. Does it nourish the spirit? (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Caesar, Circus, or Christ?” BYU Speeches of the Year, October 26, 1965, p. 4.)
Ask the family to suggest additional things someone might do when making an important decision. (Answers might include talking to a trusted adult or friend, praying, making a list of pros and cons, comparing it against values.)

Ask children if it’s easier to make the decision when the answer is needed right away or if it’s easier to make a decision long before it’s needed. Example: Josh is invited to a party where there will be no adults. He knows some of the people coming to the party don’t have high moral standards. Would it be easiest to make the decision the moment he’s asked, or would it be easier if he’d long ago decided never to attend a party unless parents were present? Tell them some decisions only have to be made once; after that, we only need to honor the decision we made. As a family, make a list of some decisions the family need only make once. Ask someone to type the list and post it in a prominent place as a family code of honor.

Apply the Teaching: Children learn by doing. Begin your training by having the children make imaginary decisions. As each decision is made, discuss why the choice was made and what the long-term consequences might be. You will then help them apply the skills learned to real decisions.

Practice Choices: (You can use these or create situations appropriate for your family.)

Ashley’s class at school has a new student. The girl stutters. Some of the children tease her. At lunch time, Ashley gets her lunch and then sees the girl sitting alone. What should Ashley do? Why? What principles help her decide what to do? What will she do if other children tease her for befriending the new girl? (Help them understand that even when we make the right choice, others might make fun of us or things might be hard. Why should we do the right thing anyway?)

Jake is allowed to choose one afterschool activity. His best friend belongs to a movie club. The members watch a movie every Friday night at a local youth center. He’d like to be with his best friend. Jake also has an opportunity to join a club that teaches kids how to build things. He loves tools and would like to learn to use them well. Which one should he join and how will his choice affect his life?

Abby has an opportunity to take advanced classes at school. They are much harder and require more homework, which will cut into her social life and hobbies. She could get higher grades with less work in regular classes, but advanced classes can help her get into a good college. What should she do?

You might also want to create a situation that has no clear right or wrong choice, so your older children can practice making those types of decisions. Choose a situation your children might really face someday.

Apply the Value: Ask each child to write down one decision they need to make now or might need to make in the future. Help younger children with this. Ask them to outline the steps they should take to make the decision and then work over the next few weeks to do so.

This lesson should be followed up the next week with a lesson on accountability.

Activity: If you use the accountability lesson and aren’t going to use the journal activity then, consider having your children make a decision journal this week, in which they will write the decisions they are making, how they make them, what they decide and what the results are. You might also finish up with games that require making choices, such as treasure hunts or board games with options. A treasure hunt can offer younger children more practice. Instead of clues, offer more situations like the ones included here. Then tell them where to go based on their choice. “If you think Jenny should call her mother for permission, look in the hall closet. If you think she should just go without permission, look in the refrigerator.” The wrong location can hold a note inviting the child to discuss the choice with a parent. The right one will hold the next situation.

Your children might enjoy making a visual reminder to make good choices using “What would Jesus Do?” or CTR (Choose the Right) on them. CTR is often displayed on a shield outline.

Handout: If you hold regular family nights, provide each person with a notebook that can hold the handouts from each lesson.

This handout is taken from from Ed J. Pinegar and Richard J. Allen, excerpted from a forthcoming book called, “What We Need to Know and Do.”

Enlarge your perspective to view opposition and temptation as an essential part of the mortal experience, and the need to overcome temptation as an eternal verity.

See opposition as the key to growth—Opposition is neither a hindrance to our growth nor a barrier to our progress, but a necessary ingredient in life that makes it possible for us to learn how to make correct choices and lift ourselves to a higher plane of wisdom.

Cultivate an attitude of hope and persistence in the face of opposition—Our attitude towards opposition and temptation often determines our decisions. A positive attitude grounded in faith leads to an upward course in life. A negative attitude based on resignation and surrender leads to a downward course in life. We should be positive about difficult situations to use our agency productively for positive outcomes as we draw on courage and resilience.

When opposition presents a choice, seek the noble and the spiritual dimension of life—The devil seeks to tempt you with pride, greed, lust, and all the vain things of the world. Take control when the choice is placed before you—choose the right.

Control your environment—Remember that we often put ourselves in situations that are tempting and conducive to sin. We actually get on the “road to sin” and sooner or later the results is sin. Let us learn to avoid compromising situations and remove ourselves out of temptation. We have the power to choose.

Follow the Spirit—In all the temptation and opposition we face, let us never doubt our capacity to make correct choices. As we act by the Spirit, with faith believing, we can and will make good decisions.

Sin and bad decisions limit our power to use moral agency properly—Bad  habits can lead to addiction; sin separates us from God and we lose the Spirit and the power to make good decisions; poor financial decisions can lead to excessive debt, which often controls your decisions in advance; perception of hopelessness creates the feeling that your decisions don’t matter or that you can’t change; unrighteous traditions—either personal, family or cultural—degrade our moral fiber; and an attitude that we can sin a little and receive a little punishment and then go on with life erodes our spirituality.

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