Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Supporting Autonomy in Children

Have you ever had to fight the urge to do your child’s homework or complete a project for him? Did you ever rush to end a disagreement your child was having with a friend? How many times have you made decisions for your child because you feared her choices were not as good as yours?

Animals have a biological instinct that drives them to protect their offspring. Doing so preserves the species. As human beings then, we are already predestined to work to keep our children out of harm’s way. But humans not only protect physically as do the member of the animal kingdom. To one degree or another we also try to shield our young from emotional, social, and psychological pain. And this is what creates a struggle for parents when it comes to creating a balance between controlling our kids and supporting them in their own endeavors.

According to researchers Wendy Grolnick and Nicholas Apostoleris of Clark University parents experience three pressures that drive them toward exerting control over their children: pressure from within, pressure from below, and pressure from outside.

Sometimes as parents we feel compelled to control our children when we feel our own reputations or self-images are at stake. This internal pressure causes us to push our children to be successful. Other times, our own kids push us to being controlling. A child who is challenging often creates within the family a vicious cycle of non-compliance/control/more non-compliance/more control. Finally, external pressures on parents include the stresses and adversities experienced by families. When people feel they have little or no control over things in their life such as economic conditions they often exert an inordinate amount of control over the things they feel they can control such as other people, namely their children. Also, stress causes more irritability. As a result, there is less mental energy left to negotiate with children, and supporting autonomy can be quite taxing.

Before you grab that project or begin drilling your child, stop and ask yourself what is your motivation for wanting to do so? Is it because you don’t want your child to experience failure or embarrassment? Do you worry about what other parents or teachers will think of you based on your child’s performance? Are you fearful of losing any control at all over your child? Consider the costs and benefits of getting too involved.

Supporting autonomy includes strategies like encouraging children to solve their own problems, seeing things from the child’s point of view, asking them how you can help, and assisting children to explore possible outcomes of choices. Supportive parents limit the use of controlling behaviors to issues that are truly harmful or against the grain of the values upheld by the family.

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