The journey of childhood is defined by the transition from a state of complete dependence to one of personal autonomy. To go from being a helpless infant to an independent adult.
To achieve healthy independence, kids need to be taught how to feel comfortable with every aspect of who they are. This is especially important for children with elevated anxiety levels. They must be provided with enough structure to make them feel secure, but not so much structure that their ability to make decisions is curtailed.
And both these types of parenting, according to Julie Lythcott-Haims’s book How to Raise an Adult, prevent children from developing resourcefulness, resilience, and critical thinking skills. This overparenting cripples our children and prevents them from becoming healthy, independent adults.
Practicing Autonomy Supportive Parenting is one way to end overparenting and achieve our true parenting goals with minimal stress – to them and us.
So, What is Autonomy Supportive Parenting?
As the name suggests, autonomy supportive parenting is a parenting philosophy that focuses on raising kids to be autonomous. In other words, we make choices that encourage kids to become independent, responsible, self-motivated and self-directed.
Autonomy supportive parenting eschews extremes of permissiveness and authoritarianism. Instead it cultivates a middle ground where children are supported without being overly protected or limited.
It definitely does not mean allowing the child to have what she wants and when she wants it at all times. Instead, it encourages self-awareness, active thinking, and decision making within the appropriate limits set by the parents. It also means allowing them to experience failure and acting as a guide as they figure out what went wrong and how they can do better next time.
Autonomy supportive parenting intentionally involves kids in making decisions and performing actions, in age-appropriate and safe ways. For instance, when deciding on extra-curricular activities for her child, a mother can offer a few options, explain what each of them involves, and visit the activities with her daughter. The child can then pick the one she wants to sign up for.
The child will feel personally involved, increasing a sense of commitment and responsibility. It will also teach the child how to make wise decisions by listening to her feelings and gathering information. It will also build her sense of confidence and self-respect.
This kind of parenting isn’t just for figuring out their after school schedules. Autonomy supportive parenting is also for homework, family decisions, and life in general!
How to Practice Autonomy Supportive Parenting
1. Provide unconditional love
Unconditional love is vital for many reasons, but it’s especially important to the development of confidence. Children who know they will be loved even if they “mess up” have less fear of failure. This empowers them to take measured risks, try new things, and build strong peer connections.
Demonstrating unconditional love is more complicated than simply caring about your child consistently (which, of course, most parents already do). For kids to know they’re accepted at all times, they need to be spoken to in a calm, non-judgmental way, even when they misbehave.
When you must correct your child’s behaviour, focus on addressing the problem at hand without labeling your child. For example, you have reminded your daughter to clean up her toys. Thirty minutes later they are still strewn across the floor.
Instead of yelling at her for not doing it, gently remind her that her toys are all over the floor. Then explain that she needs to pick them up so that no one trips over them. Calling her “messy” or “lazy” is only going to make her believe she is a messy or lazy person. It is a label she will carry with her, which makes her less likely to clean up her toys, now and in the future!
2. Give your child the opportunity to make age-appropriate choices
Kids learn how to make good decisions via trial and error. Allowing your child to make choices that influence her daily routine, even when she’s very young, is an excellent way to build better decision-making skills.
If you’re parenting a toddler, start with small choices that are easy for your child to understand. Ask your child whether she prefers to use a red cup or blue cup. Or you can ask if he wants to put on his pajamas or brush his teeth first. Limited choices like these will encourage them to start thinking about how they can independently shape their environment.
When giving your child choices, make sure those choices align with her level of maturity. Choices between 2 or 3 items work better for younger children. For instance, it’s unwise to ask a 3-year-old child whether or not she wants to go to bed on time or if he wants to brush his teeth. There are too many possibilities to choose from! However, they can choose between two or three books to be read at bedtime.
Parents should also respect their child’s preferences (where possible) and allow kids to do things at their own pace. Asking a child about her preferences makes her pay attention to her feelings. It also tells her that she is important and accepted by others. This lays a foundation for healthy self-esteem.
Acknowledging a child’s preference even if you cannot accept it is very important, too. If on a cold winter day your child wants to go outside without a jacket you can say, “I understand you wish it was summer and we did not need our jackets anymore. I feel the same way but today it’s still cold and we both need to wear them. Do you want to wear the pink jacket or the purple sweater?”
If your toddler wants to dress herself, bathe herself, or complete another achievable task, don’t intervene and attempt to speed up the process (unless she asks for help). You can, however, help your child by giving the task some structure. For my 10-year-old, I let her pick out the clothes to wear and then made a list of tasks she needs to do to prepare for school and stuck it to the bathroom mirror.
This allows her autonomy, but at the same time gives her direction and structure. She doesn’t have to do the list in order, but she knows that everything on the list needs to get done.
As your child gets older, you can begin to involve her in discussions about rules and limits. Though only parents can establish household boundaries and routines, asking your child how she feels about proposed consequences will facilitate communication and collaboration.
For example, when establishing boundaries you can have the following conversation:
Parent: “I know you really like to play video games, but it is hard for you to know when to stop. What can I do to help you make it easier when your time is up?”
Child: “I would like it if you would tell me when I have 10 minutes left so I can finish my level.”
Parent: “Great! What should I do if you ignore my request to stop?”
Child: “I guess I could do an extra chore to make up for it.”
Make sure she knows that you’re working together to create a more harmonious and functional household (i.e., rules don’t exist simply to give parents a reason to punish their children). You should also consider helping out when you see your child truly struggling in a specific area, such as by helping her plan how and when to complete challenging tasks.
For example, if your child has difficulty cleaning her room, help her schedule an appropriate time for doing it, then, together, create a check-list of tasks that need to be done. Ask her if there is any task she does not know how to do and then do those tasks with her until she get the hang of them. This way you are teaching her important skills and she knows that you are there for her.
Of course, this is more time consuming than simply stepping in and doing it for the child. However, in the long run, this approach will lead to a child who is not only capable of doing many daily tasks for herself, but also has confidence that she can master new tasks in the future.
3. Help your child feel valued and competent
Part of making good decisions lies in knowing those decisions mean something to the people around us. Children need to feel like they’re contributing to the family unit in a positive way to stay motivated and maintain a sense of direction. Involving your child in discussion of vacation plans for the family is one great example of practicing this. She will feel like an important member of the family and will learn to seek decisions that meet everybody’s needs.
When your child is small, take the time to allow her to “help” you complete tasks, provided that they don’t involve anything dangerous or breakable. Don’t treat your child like she’s getting in the way.
As she matures, give her a list of manageable chores to complete each week. In her book, How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims says that chores are one of the top indicators of success in children – children who are given chores to do are the ones who succeed in life.
And provide her with specific reinforcement, such as fun time with parents. This also teaches kids about positive consequences of their actions: since she completed her chores, the parents now have some free time, which they can spend together.
4. Demonstrate empathy and employ active listening skills
Kids often have difficulty recognizing and expressing their feelings, which can hinder their ability to act on their desires in a productive, independent way. Empathy and active listening are therefore key components of autonomy supportive parenting.
When you’re interacting with your child, genuinely listen to her perspective, especially when she’s upset or confused about something. Validate her feelings before you correct her behaviour, such as by saying, “I understand why you’re angry, but it’s not okay to throw things.”
When you’re working together to solve problems, ask your child open-ended questions, like, “How can I help you feel better?” or “What would you like to do about this?” Your primary goal when guiding your child should be to help her explore her own emotions and opinions within safe boundaries.
Never reject or dismiss your child’s feelings. It may seem ridiculous to you that your toddler has a complete meltdown over getting one scoop of ice cream instead of two, or your middle schooler is upset over something silly her friend said, but the hurt she is feeling is real to her. And we, as parents, need to acknowledge that hurt instead of brushing it away to help our kids move past it and blossom!
2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
If you would like to try this Autonomy Supportive Parenting, take a few moments to reflect on your own parenting style and that of your partner. Observe how you make decisions, communicate them to your children, and listen to their input.
What is a chore or task that your child is capable of doing today?
What are some age-appropriate choices that you can give your child right now that will help them start to develop critical thinking skills?
Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Together with your partner, decide what you’d like to change and start with a few simple goals. Consistency between caregivers as well as from day to day is very important. Do not be surprised if your child does not react in the way you’d expect at first. Practice your new skills by accepting her right to react in her own unique way.
Gradually, it will become easier and less effort for both of you. As your children grow it is helpful and necessary to re-consider parental boundaries from time to time, in order to allow them to learn how to shape their life and take responsibilities for their choices.
Autonomy supportive parenting aims to create a cooperative bond between you and your child while maintaining secure, sensible behavioural boundaries. If you’re not sure how to identify or change your parenting style, you may want to consult a family therapist. The objective insight provided by a therapist can help you make the transition to autonomy supportive parenting more smoothly and consistently.