Raising children requires a balance between a kid’s independence and a parent’s control. That balance can be hard for parents to find. After all, control in the form of harsh discipline, ultimatums, yelling, or coercion often feels like the best way to protect children and teach them to be good people. But a child who is forced to behave isn’t an independent and self-determined child. So how do you raise a kid who will be autonomous and make your life easier by reducing caregiving burdens? That’s a puzzle that might best be solved by self-determination theory.
What Is Self-Determination Theory?
Introduced to psychology in the 1980s by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, self-determination theory (SDT) suggests that people perform best when they have three fundamental needs satisfied: They feel a sense of autonomy, experience mastery and competence, and feel a genuine connection to others. Research seems to suggest that’s as true for adults as it is for kids.
“SDT proposes that when children understand why something is important, they feel autonomous,” explains Genevieve Mageau, Ph.D., a researcher and psychology professor at the University of Montreal. “They can act in a structured environment and feel completely autonomous if they agree with the rules and the structure.”
Importantly, SDT says parents are being counterproductive when they attempt to force a child into understanding through controlling methods such as punishment, awards, yelling, or coercion. “The controlling behaviors simply do not work for the internalization of values,” Mageau says. “When they feel controlled, children either resist or submit themselves. But they don’t necessarily take the time to reflect about whether what they’re doing is important.”
The Science of Parenting With Autonomy Support
There is research to show that when parents take the time to support their child’s autonomy, those children perform better. In 2007, for instance, a collaborative study between researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Illinois looked at psychological and academic outcomes in relation to autonomy supporting parenting. Researchers followed 806 Chinese and American seventh graders for six months, measuring self-reported levels of autonomy support or control from parents, along with the children’s own sense of emotional health and academic achievement. Grades were also measured.
The researchers found that reports of less control and more support of autonomy from parents were highly correlated with better academic achievement. Not only that, but those children also experienced higher levels of emotional and mental wellbeing.
A more recent meta-analysis published in 2015 by researchers from the University of Texas Austin looked at 36 studies related to children and self-determination theory. The researchers did, in fact, find a correlation between autonomy support and positive outcomes in academic achievement. But they also noted positive outcomes were seen in related areas including “autonomous motivation, psychological health, perceived competence, perceived control, engagement and effort, attitudes toward school, self-regulation, and executive functioning.”
Mageau notes that although these studies show the promise of SDT, plenty of research shows that typical methods of parental discipline and behavior modification are counterproductive. “Threatening children, punishment, guilt inducement — all those behaviors have been related to negative outcomes, repeatedly,” she says. “What SDT does is show that any human being that feels controlled will not result in positive outcomes compared to when we support their autonomy.”
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How to Raise Autonomous Kids via Self-Determination Theory
The main lesson that SDT offers parents is to give up a bit of control. But that doesn’t mean complete, hands-off, free range parenting. Rather, relinquishing control is more about finding new strategies that help a child understand why it’s important to act in a way that parents want them to act.
“When people hear that a parent is supporting their child’s autonomy, people assume they are just letting their child do whatever they want,” Mageau says. “When you’re autonomy-supportive, you’re not letting your child do whatever they want, but you’re empathic. You respect who the child is. You see the child as a complete individual. And not everybody does that.”
The key word, then, is “support.” By definition, support means doing just enough to help out. SDT proposes there is a Goldilocks level of support — not too much, not too little. The ultimate goal of the support is to help a child feel competent. That can only be achieved when children are challenged, then overcome the challenge.
A kid confronted with a task that’s too hard — one they ultimately can’t complete on their own — will likely give up, feeling incompetent. On the other hand, a child who is given tasks that are too easy, or aren’t allowed to try tasks on their own, will never feel challenged enough to feel a sense of competence.
In practical terms, it’s like helping a child with homework: Make them struggle on their own with problems they don’t understand, and they’ll grow frustrated and resentful. Do their homework for them, and they don’t learn and never feel a sense of mastery. But stay by their side and answer questions they might have, and kids can come to solutions with parental support and feel capable, connected, and competent.
Parents need to train themselves to find out where the supportive sweet spot is. It will be different for every child. And for many parents, controlling behaviors such as coercion, yelling, or punishment, or even rewards, may feel easier than sussing out the right level of support for their kid.
“What’s very difficult is that for parents, it can feel good to be controlling when you’re stressed. But you don’t get the outcome you’re supposed to get,” Mageau says. Because although getting a child to do what you want them to do in the moment might feel helpful, the long-term results could be unexpected.
“Right now, you want them to obey you automatically because it’s simpler and easier and it makes you feel reassured,” Mageau says. “But when they grow up and interact with other people, do you want them to obey those people as much as they obeyed you? Do you want them to have internalized values or follow other people? Do you want them to behave and do their work even if you’re not there to control them?”
Start With Empathy
Parents can lay the groundwork for autonomy support by increasing empathy for their child. Trying to understand a child’s point of view, rather than disregarding their feelings, can help parents discover barriers to children understanding the reasons behind expectations. Armed with this information, parents can help kids cope with their feelings or restructure the expectations so they work better for everyone.
For example, understanding that a kid isn’t staying in bed because they’re scared means a parent can help their child cope with fear and understand that they are safe. Knowing a child is acting out because they feel lonely and unseen means parents can work to restructure home life so kids are more involved.
Ultimately, the child who can’t stay in bed may need autonomy supported by having a choice of a nightlight or bedtime ritual. The child acting out may need a task to do with parents that will help them feel capable and connected.
At the center of all these interactions, Mageau suggest parents hold an important question in mind: “Am I helping my child develop their skills and learn the values they’re going to need to be adapted to the social world?”
Using SDT to guide parenting may sound tough, but it’s fairly simple. When parents love their kids, set boundaries based on values, and respect their children’s perspective and abilities, kids can develop autonomy.
However, giving up control doesn’t come easy. It takes practice, and it takes trust in long-term outcomes. Parents can’t expect to change their own behavior overnight. It’s a process. But there is one essential step to start the journey to supporting your child’s autonomy, particularly when they are tackling a difficult task.
“Just acknowledge things are hard,” Mageau says. “That feels good.”
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