Little regrets today can help children side-step bigger mistakes later.
Regrets. We all like to avoid them—and many parents wish they could make sure their kids don’t second-guess anything. But, while no one wants their child to follow in their footsteps by picking the wrong major or running up their first credit card, allowing our little ones to have regrets during childhood over small decisions could help them make better decisions as they age.
A new study from Ireland’s Queen's University looked at the role of regret kids decision making—and found children go on to make better decisions after experiencing regret.
"We're not saying teachers and parents should deliberately expose children to serious regret. But showing them how things would have turned out differently if they'd made an alternative choice could benefit them,” study lead Dr. Aidan Feeney said in a media release. “It could have significant value to children's development because of its role in decision-making.”
The study of more than 325 children in Northern Ireland found that not all kids are able to experience regret by the age of six. But the ones who do are able to make better decisions.
The researchers asked 6 and 7 years olds to choose between two boxes. No matter which box they chose, they got a sticker and were asked to rate how happy or sad the decision made them. Then, they were shown how choosing the other box would have got them more stickers, and they were again asked to rate their feelings.
According to the researchers, the kids who felt worse after learning the stakes of the unchosen box experienced regret.
The next day, all the kids were given the same choice. Those who had experienced regret the day before were more likely to now choose the box with more stickers, suggesting that when kids remember regretting a choice they are more likely to change their behaviors.
Dr. Feeney said he is looking forward to developing further research on this subject—because we all know that as little ones grow, there’s so much more at stake than stickers.
"There's much concern over the choices some teenagers make, for example around sexual behavior and alcohol," he said. "We don't want teenagers to experience regret by making decisions with very serious consequences. Instead, we need to understand how learning about other people's regrets might help them anticipate feeling the emotion themselves and therefore chose more wisely."
Right now, the choice may be between popsicles and ice cream cones. But, if we let our kids live with the consequences of their decisions now, they could make better ones when facing bigger choices later.