Does your child practice the dark arts of snow day summoning — freezing spoons, ice cubes in the toilet, mittens under the pillow? Good. You have an opportunity for a meaningful and low-stakes conversation about how to make decisions skillfully.
It’s that time of the year again when students call on Jack Frost, teachers risk staying up a little too late binge-watching their favorite show, parents scramble to make childcare arrangements, and administrators try to make the “right” call. As a former school administrator, but also a parent, I found the snow day decision to be a great opportunity to engage my daughters Grace and Rose in conversations about decision making. It’s into that arcane process I invite you now, with the hope that you will find within it some ways to talk to your own children (or students) about how to make a decision under conditions of uncertainty.
I suggest you role play with your children, with them as the decision maker. Give them the weight of responsibility as the Superintendent, and talk with them about how to go about deciding to call a snow day. Tell them they are the “Official Snow Day Boss.”
I wrote an example of how to use the Weight and Rate Method in a previous post, but you don’t need to unroll that formal process to have a really good conversation with your child about the snow day call. As Mary Poppins said, “Enough is as good as a feast,” so pick one or two decision skills to discuss, learn from and enjoy. And if this year is like last year’s winter season, there will be more than one tricky snow day with which to practice.
Here’s a memory tool for talking about decisions: P⁵ (P to the fifth) or PPPPP, which stands for People, Process, Preferences, Possibilities, and Probabilities. Pick one and focus on questions for your young “Superintendent” related to that P. If they are still game you can extend by picking another.
People: Who is involved? Who can be consulted? Who needs to be informed?
Process: How will we go about deciding?
Preferences: What are the values involved? What do we care about for this decision?
Possibilities: What are the alternatives?
Scenario: “You’re the Superintendent of our school district. It’s 10 p.m. and you’ve told people that you will make the call by midnight. Two big questions: Who will be affected by your decision? Who do you want to talk to before deciding?”
By talking with your child about who is involved you are opening up their decision-making process. You are getting them to think critically about how choices affect others, and also about how other people might contribute to the quality of their decisions by giving them useful information, a different perspective, and the benefit of their experience. This investment of your time and attention will come back to you in future years when they think about course selection, summer jobs, college applications, career choices, marriage, etc. Getting them to think about others as part of the decision process means they will think of you as part of their decision process. I recommend focusing on questions like:
- “Anyone else?”
- “Do you think parents have the same concerns as the maintenance staff?”
- “How will this affect teachers driving from far away?”
- “What about student drivers?”
- “Is there anyone you would call for advice? Who else is trying to make a decision like this?”
- “What might the mayor know?”
Scenario: “You’re the Superintendent of our school district. It’s September 15th, Parent Night, and during the Q&A a parent asks how you will decide whether to close schools or not this winter. What process are you going to describe to them?”
Let your child think for a moment before answering. They might surprise you. They also might bring up People as part of their Process. That’s fine. These are overlapping concepts. Just stay with them. You can play a non-confrontational parent and probe by asking questions like “How will busing and public transportation inform your decision?” and “What station do you use for the forecast?” Do little or no judging. Stay in character. Remember the goal here is not to get them to become great snow day deciders, the goal is to help them think about decision making, hopefully in a pleasant frame. This part is all about how.
You don’t need to use the word “preferences.” That’s just a P-word to help you remember. “Values” is fine and so is “considerations.”
Scenario: “It’s 10 p.m. There is a 30% chance of snow tomorrow, possible accumulation 4-6 inches. You’re the District Superintendent. What do you care about in making this decision? What matters?”
Your child will probably mention safety. They might mention fun. Those are both fine. If we were using the Weight and Rate Method, those might both make the list. So would learning, hopefully, but we’d probably give them different weights. The goal here is to get them thinking about and listing all of the values, preferences, or considerations we should take into account when making the decision. Keep them going with questions like:
- “Anything else?”
- “What about after-school programs? What about overtime costs?”
- “What about people trying to get to work?”
- “What about how many snow days we’ve already used?”
- “What about summer vacation?”
You are once again opening them up and having them think about the many factors (values and considerations) that are involved in even one decision. It’s very easy for young people to make decisions impulsively, on just the last value or criteria that comes to mind, or the one they think most important. When asking them to think about more values you are complicating their thinking, in a very helpful way.
Scenario: “You’re the Superintendent. It’s Midnight and you haven’t decided about the snow day yet. You decide to wait until the morning. What might happen?”
Ooh… imagination! Yes, let them describe the “might happen” scenarios. Then take it further with these possibilities:
- “It’s midnight and you do call a snow day! What might happen the next day?”
- “It’s 9 a.m. the next day, everyone is at school, and it starts to snow heavily. What do you do?”
Outcomes can be good or bad, or even neutral. What’s important here is to talk about the variety of ways things might go. What you are trying to do in talking about possibilities is to open your child up to see that there are multiple possible outcomes. You can extend the conversation by asking how the consequences in each alternative affect the different people involved.
An annual tradition in our household is for each member of the family to predict the date of the first snowfall. We write our predictions and post them on the refrigerator. Closest date wins the prize, usually some chocolate. My wife and I have yet to win.
What we’re interested in here though is more than guessing. We want to engage in probabilistic thinking. Estimating likelihoods, making predictions, and speaking probabilistically are incredibly valuable skills for better decision making. Improving numeracy, in general, is currently the most promising area for interventions that actually improve decision skills. You can improve your child’s decision making skill by bringing estimating and predictions into your household culture and conversations. You can start as easily as estimating the number of things you see around the house like, “I think there are about 90 ornaments on the tree.” (I am very like to be wrong since Grace just estimated 50 and Rose independently said 55. Yikes!)
After you get comfortable with estimating, you start noticing opportunities to think and speak probabilistically; examples will abound.
Here’s a Quick Check. What does it mean when the forecast says there is a 30% chance of snow tomorrow?
- A. It will snow, but only for a few hours tomorrow.
- B. It will snow late in the day tomorrow.
- C. It will not snow tomorrow.
- D. It will snow a little tomorrow, between 1 and 2 inches (30% of 4-6 inches)
- E. On days like tomorrow, it will snow 3 out of 10 times, usually between 4 and 6 inches.
- F. It will rain tomorrow, this is too much like math, and I should go to bed.
It’s E. But what exactly does it mean?
When the forecast is 30% chance of snow with accumulation of 4-6 inches, that means if we had today’s forecast and we could roll the clock forward and backward to look at 1,000 examples of tomorrow, in 300 of them there would be snow, usually between 4 and 6 inches. On the other 700 days, no snow. (Calculating the PoP, or probability of precipitation, is slightly more complicated than that, but talking about probabilities as frequencies is your goal here.)
So present your child with this scenario: “You’re the superintendent. It’s midnight. The forecast is 30% chance of snow with accumulation between 4–6 inches. You’ve decided to call a snow day. Out of 100, on how many days like tomorrow do you think it would snow?”
If your child says something other than 30 out of 100, you have something to talk about. Follow up with “On how many days out of 100 like tomorrow would it not snow?” Hopefully, they say 70.
You can then ask:
- “You wake up at 3 a.m. and it has not started to snow yet. Is your estimate going up or down?”
- “What if it is still not snowing by 6 a.m.?”
- “At what time will you be 100% certain that it will not snow tomorrow?” (Psst…midnight at the end of tomorrow.)
Estimating probabilities is foundational to making good decisions, but a lot of people are uncomfortable with it. Well, good news: you don’t have to be uncomfortable anymore! From now on just change any percentage into a count out of 100. For example, 35% now means 35 out of 100. 40% just means 40 out of 100. Now you can start playing and talking with your child about predictions and estimates in simple, everyday numbers and really help them get good at it.
If you ask your child, “How likely is it that you will get an A on the science test tomorrow?” and he says, “50–50,” you say, “Okay, what would you have to do tonight to increase the likelihood to 80%, meaning that you would expect that if you took the test 100 times you would get an A at least 80 of those times?”
Oh, no — yuck, tests! Weren’t we talking about snow days? Yes, sorry. Okay, okay.
That seems like more than enough for now. P⁵: People, Process, Preferences, Possibilities, and Probabilities. Five easy topics to start talking about with your children to grow their decision-making skills. Pick any one of them and get them talking about the best part of being a kid this time of the year, snow days. Here’s a glass of warm cocoa raised to snow days, and to parents taking time to talk with their children about decision making.
Executive Director, How I Decide