Giving kids more control will nurture a love of learning and responsibility. Learn how to encourage autonomy in children with these tips.
Want to know the one thing we need to stop doing if we want to encourage our children’s love of learning?
We all do it, hidden even with the best of intentions. It happens when we:
- Bribe them to do something with an incentive
- Threaten to confiscate a treasured item if they don’t obey
- Hover over their actions to make sure they do it right
- Judge their emotions, behaviors and even personalities
- Give rewards for accomplishments
- Praise to impose our own goals on them
If you cringed reading the above because they sound all too familiar, you’re not alone. The one thing these behaviors have in common?
I’ve learned that the most damaging thing we can do to their learning is to control it. Just from the list above, I was surprised by how easy it is for us to exert control over them.
We bribe with ice cream and a video game if they finish their homework. We push them to excel in sports even when they show no interest being on any teams. And we criticize their mistakes when we should be praising their effort and perseverance.
It can be hard for us to relinquish control, especially when they don’t meet our expectations. Maybe it’s in our personality, or we see ourselves doing our job and being useful. We can’t imagine them making decisions and facing potential failure and mistakes.
But controlling and micromanaging send one clear message: “I don’t think you can do this.”
So, what’s the solution that encourages them to grow and learn, all without control?
How to foster autonomy in children
Let’s define autonomy with what it isn’t: It’s not independence, though we can confuse the two since they’re often done alone. Independence is freedom from control. Close, but not quite.
Autonomy is more than that. It’s the power and the opportunity to decide for oneself how to do something. No micromanaging, luring with rewards, or threatening to do things a certain way.
It’s letting kids determine for themselves how they want to do it. Figuring out what works, and what doesn’t. Letting it go if they don’t do it exactly the way we’d have done it, even if it means they make mistakes.
So, how can we encourage autonomy in children and resist the urge to control?
1. Spot the times when your child doesn’t need you
It can be so tempting to step in and “be useful.” You see your toddler reading a book on her own and feel compelled to read with her every time. She’s struggling with scooping her food, so you take the spoon and do it for her. She’s building with her blocks, and you assume she needs a playmate.
If in doubt, err on not interrupting. Kids have a knack for letting us know when they want our company (“Mama! Mama! Mama!” sound familiar?). Observe your child and see if she does need your help, or if she could better use the time to herself.
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2. Do one notch above what your child needs help with
Let’s say your child has been more independent with the potty and pulling her undies and pants up. But once in a while, she gets these all bunched up, as undies and clothes can sometimes do.
But instead of pulling the undies and pants up completely for her, do one notch above what she needs help with. The one small nudge that will allow her to continue doing it on her own.
Try to do one notch that will help her do it herself. The point isn’t to do the task completely for her, but to help her enough to finish it on her own. For instance, you can untangle the undies and pants. With the elastics no longer bunched together, she can now pull them on her own.
3. Give feedback only if needed
My son was excited to practice writing with me, scrambling to find a seat at the table with his pencil ready. Then I showed him how to write the letter “h,” a letter he’d been learning at preschool.
I had seen how well he’d been writing letters at school, so when he scribbled a barely legible “h,” I assumed he was testing me yet again.
“That’s not how you write ‘h,'” I began. “I know you can do it. Let me see you write another one.”
His mood colored from excitement to frustration. And I knew right then I had seized control over what should’ve been a learning opportunity.
Part of encouraging autonomy means not micromanaging. Let your child stack the dishes north-south, even if you stack them east-west. If it makes little to no difference in the final goal, learn to let it go.
Being too critical and giving feedback are tempting when you know she can do better. But done too often, and at the wrong time, you could discourage her from these activities.
Instead, only give feedback for important matters. While there may not be a “correct” way to stack dishes, you can point out that she forgot to add dishwasher soap or left oily residue.
And if you do decide to correct her, do so in a positive and encouraging way, not one that berates her efforts. After all, she might not even know that what she did was “bad” in your eyes.
4. Don’t redo your child’s work
I showed my son how to make his bed, along with tips to get the sheets smooth and the task done quickly.
But he didn’t remove the blankets from the bed like how I showed him. He’d just pull and stretch them until they covered the mattress. He didn’t even stack the pillows one on top of the other, and instead laid them into an L-shape.
I was tempted to redo the bed, throwing the sheets and blankets on the floor and starting over. He’d sleep more comfortably this way, I thought.
Except I learned to let it go, even if I didn’t think he’d sleep well. If it did bother him, he’d learn to fix it. And he felt more ownership and pride with his “not so neat” bed than if I had fixed it my way.
Giving your child autonomy isn’t just backing off to let her do things her own way. You also have to back so far off that you don’t touch it even after it’s been done.
After all, you’d still be controlling her and not giving her autonomy if you redo her work. “Fixing” her mistakes sends the message that her work isn’t up to your standards. That you don’t value her effort, and prefer having it done your way.
Instead, be okay that she did it on her own, not whether she did it “right.” The purpose of giving her autonomy isn’t to get things done the way you would do it. Instead, it’s fueling the desire to do good work, learn, and build competence.
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Author Jessica Lahey says it well in her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed:
“While our children tend to love us no matter what we do or how we parent, I would rather my children think of me as the sort of parent who guides rather than directs, supports rather than controls, the sort of parent who is more concerned with my child’s competence and the strength of our connection than the alignment of the dishes in the dishwasher or a stray white sock tossed in with the colored load of laundry.”
We’ve learned that control is the most damaging thing we can do to our children’s learning. No one wants to be told what to do all the time, or feel like anything they do doesn’t add up to much.
Instead, we want to encourage autonomy—the complete power to decide for oneself how to do something.
Spot the times your child doesn’t need you so you can give her more time to herself. When she does, don’t do the task completely for her, and instead help enough so she can do the rest. Give feedback only on important matters, and don’t redo her work, however different it is from what you would’ve done.
Giving autonomy shows you trust her and strengthens your relationship, far more than any directive or control will ever do.
Get more tips:
- 4 Benefits of Teaching Kids Responsibility
- Why Parents Really Need to Stop Hovering
- How to Get Your Child to Help with Younger Siblings
- How to Get Things Done — Even with a Needy Toddler
- What to Do When Your Child Says No to Everything
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