A few years ago our family outgrew a small 900 square foot bungalow built in 1912. It was a charming little house in an eclectic neighborhood but we were about to have our second child and figured that we needed another bedroom. Most people in the neighborhood had no kids or if they did, they only had one. Couples who had growing families all seemed to move away from the urban neighborhood to the suburbs. This happend over and over with people we knew through the years. And eventually, we were no different and followed the same pattern–we moved to a growing town about 25 miles south.
Are Our Decisions On Autopilot?
The decision to move worked out great. We got our extra bedroom and a great neighborhood with other kids for ours to play with. But when I look back on this decision to move, I wonder how much of this choice was made by our (‘our’ referring to me and my wife) free will and how much was from us making a choice on autopilot. Nobody coerced us to move–the decision was made by us but there is a more subtle question of how much are we influenced by unknown forces in our brains.
As I look back, I’m not sure how much consideration I gave to staying in the house. Babies can sleep in their cradle/cribs in their parent’s room for a while and eventually share rooms with siblings. In fact, it was pretty common at the time our house was built in the early 20th century for families of 6 or larger to live in these smaller houses. I don’t remember thinking of any of that. Really, the overwhelming factor of making our decision to move was based on what we accepted as the unofficial 1 child cultural policy. When we hit #2, our reflex was to put the house up for sale.
There are many decisions we all make in our life that could probably be picked apart like our moving choice. It does get at the issue of our how our brains set rules which can directly impact our choices. And they might not be very obvious to us. To stay efficient, our brains rely on heuristics or rules of thumb to make decisions. For example, at some point we might have made a decision to lock our doors at night to avoid burglaries. We continue the practice based on a heuristic so that our brain doesn’t have to reprocess all the facts we used to make this decision. These shortcuts usually work well for us but they also might be guiding our choices more than we realize.
A Cookie Butter Shake Crushes Free Will
Share the following story and then use the questions below to drive discussion about how your kids feel they are guided in their choices.
On many Saturday evenings between Thanksgiving and New Years, we put the kids to bed and my wife gets in the car to make a trip. She travels down the road and encounters 3 stop signs and 1 stop light. She always turns the same way at each stop: left, right, straight, left.
There are no roadblocks, police checkpoints, traffic accidents, marching bands or bears riding unicycles that get in the way and force her to turn certain ways. She could go right, straight, left, right if she wanted but she never does. Anybody would say that she is perfectly free to turn whichever way she wants.
The explanation to this story has to do with ice cream. During the holidays, a local burger place makes cookie butter shakes. They are a beautiful blend of cookie butter, vanilla ice cream and caramel. For those few winter weeks when it’s available for a limited time only, it becomes a guilty Saturday night obsession for me and my wife.
Of the 6 or so times we got these shakes this winter, nothing convinced us to do something else. If we had a sick kid, I was home to take care of them and my wife made the trip. If it was snowing, my wife drove slowly. It is conceivable that something could have caused us to choose against getting a shake, but nothing presented itself.
You might say that it sounds like an addiction. That’s totally possible. Maybe we are like the lab rats in this study who seem to work just as hard for Oreos as they do cocaine. But nevermind our problems. Now it’s time for your kids to critique my story/argument.
Dream Day Storyboard
For this activity, your child needs a partner. That probably means you. Using the printable storyboard below, create the perfect day. The catch is that this one perfect day is going to be created by the opinions of two different people. Taking turns, let your child draw and label the first thing they would do on a day with no constraints and no required things to do.
For example, your child might draw themself on a bike in the first square showing how they will start their day. You take the second square and draw the next thing they should do. Alternate squares until they are all filled in. The top 3 squares happen before lunch; the middle three are after but before dinner; and the bottom three are after dinner but before you go to bed.
How Did It Go?
Does Fate Determine Our Lives?
We all make choices but we also experience circumstances that are beyond our control. The difficult question is how do these two things balance and how much control of our lives do we have. This is where spiritual and religious beliefs guide many people and might be appropriate to share with your kids along the way in this discussion. Are we fated (e.g. outcomes in life are predetermined; and what is supposed to happen will happen regardless of what we do)? Is there some inscrutable force that is guiding our decisions? Do we have programming in our brains that leads us? Can we decide for ourselves? Or is it a little of all these things?
To help discuss some of these questions, here is a great clip from Toy Story where Buzz Lightyear jumps into the Space Crane game at Pizza Planet. Buzz discovers the toy aliens inside the game and asks who is in charge. The aliens all point up to “the claw” and explain that it is the claw that decides who will go and who will stay inside their world.
Can A Person Change?
Another great scene comes from Wreck-It-Ralph. Ralph seems to be battling a similar question of fate.
The purpose of this lesson is to help kids understand that the notion of making free choices isn’t as straightforward as one might think. But kids can be more empowered to own their choices when they realize how other forces and brain behaviors have influence over them. Their last assignment is to go out and do something good that makes them confident in their ability to exercise free will. Encourage them to do something spontaneous or something they’ve never done before. They can go give their mom a hug, help at a homeless shelter, make a card for an elderly person or find a frazzled middle-aged dad and take him a cookie butter shake.