Parents should foster autonomy in children to encourage a love of learning and responsibility. Learn how to raise an autonomous child 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 kids 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 on 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. We all do this one thing these behaviors have in common:
I’ve learned that the single most damaging thing parents can do to our children’s learning is to control it. Just from the list above, I was surprised by how easy it is for us to exert control over our kids.
We bribe them with new pencils and erasers 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.
A few days ago, my three-year-old was excited to practice writing with me. He scrambled to find a seat at the table and picked up a pencil. Then I showed him how to write the letter “h,” something he’d been learning.
I had seen how well he’s 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.
It can be hard for parents to relinquish control, especially when kids 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 our kids making decisions and facing potential failure and mistakes.
But controlling and micromanaging our kids sends one clear message: I don’t think you can do this.
So, what’s the solution that encourages kids to grow and learn, all without control?
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.
The case of the messy bed
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My six-year-old makes his bed every morning. In the beginning, I showed him how I do it, and tips to get the sheets smooth and the bed done quickly.
But he doesn’t remove his blankets from the bed like how I do it. He just pulls and stretches until they cover the mattress. He doesn’t even stack his pillows one on top of the other and instead lays them into an L-shape.
I’ve been tempted to redo his bed, throwing the sheets and blankets to the floor and starting over. He’d sleep more comfortably this way, I’ve thought.
Except I’ve learned to leave it, even if I don’t think he’ll sleep as well. If it does bother him, he’ll learn to fix it so it won’t anymore. So far it doesn’t seem to. And he feels more ownership and pride with his “not so neat” bed than if I had fixed it my way.
How to foster autonomy in children
So, how can we encourage autonomy and resist the urge to control?
1. Learn to spot the times when your child doesn’t need you
It can be so tempting to step in and “be useful.” We see a three-year-old reading a book on her own and will want to suggest reading together every time. A toddler struggling with scooping rice so we take the spoon and scoop it for her. Even the child playing robots doesn’t always need 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.
2. Do just one notch above what they need help with
My twins have been more independent with the potty and pulling their undies and pants up. The problem is that sometimes, they get these all bunched up, as undies and clothes can sometimes do.
But instead of pulling the undies and pants up completely, I do just one notch above what they need help with. The one small thing they need so they can do it on their own.
In my case, that meant untangling the undies and pants. With the elastics no longer bunched together, they can now pull it on their own.
If your child does need help, try to do just one notch that will help her do it herself. The point isn’t to do the task completely for her, but to help her just enough to finish it on her own.
3. Give feedback only if needed
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.
At the same time, we still need to teach them effective and correct ways to do these tasks. While there may not be a “correct” way to stack dishes, we should point out they forgot to add dishwasher soap.
It’s okay to correct and give feedback, but only if needed. My son had been washing dishes when I noticed he wasn’t rinsing the soap well. He was even leaving oily residue on some of the plates. I needed to correct him if he’s to learn how to wash and clean dishes.
But he also stacked the dishes the way I wouldn’t have. Bowls and plates were everywhere, with little order. Did it matter in the bigger picture? No, so I let it go.
4. Don’t redo your child’s work
Giving kids autonomy isn’t just backing off to let them do things their own way. We have to back so far off that we don’t touch it even after it’s been done.
We’re still controlling our kids and not giving them autonomy if we redo their work. “Fixing” their mistakes sends the message that their work isn’t up to standards. That we don’t value their effort and prefer having it done our way.
Instead, be okay that they did it on their own, not whether they did it “right.” The purpose of giving kids autonomy isn’t to get things done how you would do it. Instead, it’s fueling the desire to do good work, learn and build competence.
We’ve learned that control is the single 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. It places faith and trust in our kids, values they crave and need. And it strengthens our relationship, far more than any directive or control will ever do.
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: (affiliate link)
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.
5-Day Parenting Challenge
Looking for actionable steps and quick wins in parenting? The Better Parenting 5-Day Challenge is for parents who know they want to improve but need that little nudge and supportive guidance to do so.
Over the course of 5 days, we’ll tackle one actionable tip you can implement right away that will drastically change the way you raise your child. This is your chance to challenge yourself and make the changes you’ve always wanted to make. Sign up today!
Get more tips:
- The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
- One Effective Word to Get Kids to Listen
- 4 Benefits of Teaching Kids Responsibility
- Why Parents Really Need to Stop Hovering
- How to Get Your Child to Help with Younger Siblings
Tell me in the comments: What new thing is your child learning that you can give him the autonomy to do on his own?