Supporting the Autonomy of Young Children Increases Achievement Through High School and Beyond
Updated: Oct 20
"There is much evidence that the more parents support children's autonomy and the less parents attempt to control children, the better the children's achievement." (Bindman, Pomerantz & Roisman, Journal of Educational Psychology, 2015, Vol. 107, No. 3, 756-770)
That sounds great. I want my child to achieve in high school and beyond. But what is autonomy-supportive parenting? What does it look like?
Your five-month old son has just learned to sit up on his own. His cute little butt is proudly sitting on a white blanket with primary-colored letters stitched all over it. His favorite toy, a bright, red truck, is on the edge of the blanket, just out of reach. He stretches as far as he can but he can't quite grab it.
He gets frustrated. He starts to cry and looks up at you with big, round, sad eyes.
What do you do?
A. Walk over, get the truck and hand it to him.
B. Walk away and let him cry in frustration.
C. Encourage him to reach all the way to get it and when he falls over on his face laugh at him as if it's hilarious.
D. Cheer him on to figure it out for himself. Look him in the eye, smile, clap, and say, "You got this! I know you can figure out a way to get the truck. Come on. Try again."
Which is the autonomy-supportive response?
I remember this exact moment in my parenting journey. When I went with Option D, my son's frustrated face shifted to a look of pure determination. I thought he would pick up another object he could reach and use it to grab the truck.
But he totally surprised me by pulling the blanket toward him and with it the truck. He proudly grabbed that truck and gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen. He's now 21 years old, but I still remember that moment of being in awe of how bright he was all those years ago. How much his problem-solving ability--even at five-months old--surprised and delighted not only me, but also himself.
It was a self-sighting moment for him: I can do things. I can solve problems. I am capable. I can use my ideas to interact with the world around me.
That was just one moment in my son's life, and there have been literally tens of thousands of such moments as both my sons have grown and developed. Each time they faced a problem, they were supported to figure out how to solve it.
I didn't walk away and say, "Figure it out," only to leave him feeling isolated, frustrated and sad. And I didn't give in to his frustration, do the easy thing and just solve the problem for him.
Autonomy-supportive parenting starts at birth and never stops. It's an approach to relating to children in ways that support their development to becoming the most amazing version of themselves possible. There are lots of ways to define autonomy-supportive parenting.
Here are my "Ten Approaches to Autonomy-Supportive Parenting." (I'll be blogging about each of them in the coming weeks.)
1. Unconditional love and acceptance of the child you are actually parenting (not the child you want to parent, or the child you think you're parenting, or the child you always dreamed of parenting). Knowing and accepting your child for who he/she/they is/are deep down inside is the first and most important step to becoming an autonomy-supportive parent.
[Link to my Blog Post on Tip #1 Unconditional Love]: https://www.purposeparenting.net/post/unconditional-love-acceptance-first-most-important-step-being-an-autonomy-supportive-parent
2. Provide each child with a sense of belonging. Be on your child's team. Help everyone pull in the same direction towards shared goals.
[Link to my Blog Post on Tip #2 Sense of Belonging]
3. Support your child's body autonomy. Their body, their hair, their clothing choices. Their bodies are theirs.
4. Support your child's healthy, unique development. Be patient and accept where they are physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually. They are where they are, right when they need to be there.
5. Celebrate each child's uniqueness. Never compare (to siblings, cousins, friends, etc).
6. Teach and model good boundaries and limits, rather than enforcing rules and control or exerting pressure. There is never a reason to be in a power struggle with your child. Power struggles--by definition--indicate you think you have power over your child as their parent. That's the opposite of autonomy-supportive parenting.
7. Help your child develop a sense of self-accomplishment, rather than a desire to please. Parent using encouragement, not praise.
[Link to my Blog Post Tip #7 Encouragement vs. Praise]
8. Model, expect and notice the behaviors you want to see (e.g. friendship, empathy, compassion, generosity, gratefulness, courage, persistence, curiosity, zest for life, etc.), and as much as possible ignore the behaviors you want to see less.
9. Offer developmentally-appropriate challenges.
10. Offer choices you are willing to accept (e.g. green shirt or red shirt, walk or ride in the stroller to the park). Once you offer your child a choice, you must accept what they choose. So be very careful when offering choices, respect and honor your child's voice/choice.