“I inform my wife about important decisions I take for the family. But if I know something is right or good, I decide. I don’t feel the need to discuss every matter with her,” said an educated young person while discussing decision-making in his household. His response represents a common belief in our households—the belief that the household in-charge can unilaterally decide. For most households in our cultural context, that person happens to be an elderly male figure.
There are multiple problems with such a model of decision-making. First, by merely informing our wives, mothers and daughters about our decisions, we are taking away their agencies. In doing so, we reiterate that the decision-maker knows better and can decide on the lives of the others. Second, such a model of decision-making involves a risk of nurturing a passivity that brings more harm than good in the long run, for both the active decision maker and the passive follower.
For the most part of their shared lives, parents take decisions for their children. But as these children grow up, the same parents may expect their sons and daughters to make decisions on their own. And if there is a hesitation or inability to decide, parents may even express their frustration. Another example is that we ask our daughters and sisters to keep away from men outside the family all their lives but then want them to decide on marriage soon after they have met someone, even briefly.
In our education system, educational engagements for children at school are highly structured—the government provides a curriculum; the school chooses textbooks, extra- and co-curricular activities; the teachers set up exams and discussions without involving children. But, as soon as the students pass grade 10 they are expected to decide what to study for their 10+2, or bachelors. Such examples display the ambiguity embedded in our decision-making.
It is wrong to expect someone to decide without equipping them with necessary social, cultural and psychological tools. How can someone who is not even encouraged to decide on seemingly simple things like choosing a dress, a meal, a magazine, or a movie take significant decisions like which discipline to study, what career to pursue, or which country to live in?
Those who decide for others commonly argue that they have benevolence at heart and more knowledge and experience at hand. But are prior knowledge and experience prerequisites or adequate for good decisions? Where then do qualities like creativity and novelty fit? How often do we reflect on the consequences of our earlier decisions on ourselves and on others? What have been the repercussions of the decisions our elders/parents/bosses/spouses have made on our behalf without including us? We find that there are hardly any right or wrong decisions; there are only right and wrong ways of decision-making.
The ‘right to self-determination’ principle, popular in social work, asks practitioners to allow the client to make decisions on their own. This principle is built on the belief that ‘only the wearer knows where the show pinches’. The practitioners treat clients as ‘experts by experience’ and facilitate the client’s understanding of their context, strengths and limitations. Practitioners offer help in the process but never decide for clients or merely inform them. Social work practitioners believe that clients strengthen their agencies and become empowered by practicing their right to self-determination.
We firmly believe that the ‘right to self-determination’ should be integrated in our everyday decision-making including families, offices, and bureaucratic apparatuses. We propose engaging people of all ages, including children, unfailingly in the decisions that matter to them. Children, particularly, should not be treated as individuals without agency and merely be informed, but be actively engaged in matters that affect their lives. Engagement in decision-making in one area empowers them to decide in other areas too.
However, some individuals and groups like people with mental challenges, young children, and the marginalized might need support in decision-making. This support should be extended by laying out the contexts and the consequences of the decision-making rather than deciding on their behalf.
The best decisions come from sharing and engagement instead of unilateral assumptions and patronization. So let’s not forget to engage people who have a stake. And haven’t we agreed over generations that two heads are better than one anyway?