| What is autonomy-supportive parenting | Positive effects | How to be an autonomy-supportive parent |
Every parent wants their children to succeed in school, but many of them don’t know how to help them effectively.
Some blame themselves for not watching their kids closely enough or failing to make them complete all their homework.
Others are frustrated when they try to take things away or offer rewards to motivate their kids without success. Meanwhile, their relationships with their children keep deteriorating due to the constant power struggle over schoolwork.
What secrets do parents of self-driven children hold?
What makes some children self-motivated to work hard and their parents don’t need to worry about their studying or homework?
The secret is that the cause and effect are actually reversed.
The idea that because children are motivated, therefore parents don’t need to interfere is a misconception.
The reality is, because parents don’t interfere, children become self-motivated.
This is called autonomy supportive parenting.
What is autonomy-supportive parenting
Autonomy is a sense of being in control of one’s own actions and the ability to determine one’s own behavior.
Autonomy-supportive parenting is characterized by the following.
- Let children take initiative.
- Take the children’s perspective.
- Guide them in decision-making instead of controlling them.
Parents who are skeptics often refer to this parenting style as “let them do whatever they want” parenting. The reason is that they focus on the first two points but ignore the third.
An autonomy supportive parent doesn’t only do (1) or (2). They do all three of them. In addition to allowing their children the freedom to make decisions, they guide them on how to make the right ones in safe ways and develop healthy independence.
A substantial amount of research indicates that autonomy-supportive parenting promotes children’s positive outcomes such as intrinsic motivation, academic performance, learning, well-being, social emotional development, and psychosocial adjustment1,2.
In contrast, traditional parenting practice that uses punishment has a detrimental effect on children’s outcomes in terms of academic achievement, mental health and general wellbeing.
Positive effects of autonomy-supportive parenting
The role of autonomy in child development is crucial. Parents’ autonomy-supportive behaviors provide manifold benefits.
1. Increase intrinsic motivation
Children’s intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy, attitude toward learning, attention, and persistence are among the behavioral factors that affect academic success3.
The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) suggests that humans have three basic psychological needs – autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The environment in which a child lives can either facilitate or hinder their intrinsic motivation depending on whether it contains these motivating elements or not4.
Parental autonomy support provides children with a sense of control over their own actions. Children’s sense of autonomy signals to them that they have enough competence to make good decisions.
Parents who do not hold psychological control over their children are better able to bond with them. Improved relatedness between parents and their children contributes to intrinsic motivation5.
By satisfying all three of the psychological needs, supportive parents help their kids approach life and schoolwork in an effective way.
2. Turn extrinsic motivation into internal drive
A sense of control can also improve the quality of one’s extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something because we enjoy it.
Extrinsic motivation is the drive to perform an activity for a separable outcome or external reason.
Not every child can enjoy learning, and not every subject can inspire pleasure. Therefore, motivation to study is primarily extrinsic in many children6.
In motivating children to engage in uninteresting activities, providing a rationale in an autonomy-supportive way helps them identify with the importance of the task. By respecting children’s autonomy, a rationale can change an activity from one of “not worth doing” to one of “worth doing”6,7.
Therefore, on activities that children cannot develop intrinsic motivation, they can still have more conviction even if the motivation is extrinsic.
There is an added benefit to motivate using rationale. It encourages children’s language skills and critical thinking abilities, which contribute to their academic success.
3. Better executive function and academic achievement
Executive functions are the cognitive skills that allow a person to manage their attention and behavior. Among these skills are the ability to ignore distractions, inhibit unwanted behavior, utilize working memory, and switch focus flexibly8.
Early childhood executive functions may lay the foundation for future success9.
Parents’ autonomy support facilitates children’s development of executive functions because it allows them to solve problems in their own way when they complete challenging tasks. These children are more likely to engage in the activities for a longer period and have the opportunity to practice and strengthen these skills10.
4. Higher self-confidence
Children who are allowed to handle difficult tasks independently develop confidence in their abilities.
Those whose parents are hovering and intrusive develop a state of complete dependence rather than personal growth. These children tend to report lower self-esteem11,12.
5. Stronger emotional regulation and resilience
Early adolescents who receive autonomy-supportive parenting show stronger adaptive emotion regulation and less maladaptive regulation. They tend to have better adjustment and well-being13.
Resilience is adapting positively to adverse circumstances. Adolescents with supportive, autonomous parents are more resilient14.
6. Better socio-emotional development and prosocial behavior
Internalization and intrinsic motivation play an important role in optimal social development and emotional functioning. Children internalize values and develop intrinsic motivation when they are allowed to make choices freely without being controlled15. These children tend to have more prosocial behavior.
Children with controlling parents are more likely to develop externalizing behavior and to experience social and emotional difficulties16.
7. Enhanced Mental health and life satisfaction
A child’s perception of parental control can greatly influence their psychological development and general well-being.
Children who feel in control of their environments experience fewer related psychological risks, such as depression and anxiety, and higher life satisfaction17,18.
How to be an autonomy-supportive parent
Giving up absolute control over children contradicts many people’s different parenting styles and philosophies. It can trigger a strong fear in parents.
Being autonomy-supportive is not being permissive. It doesn’t mean letting children do whatever they want. Parents who support their children’s autonomy also provide guidance, reasoning, and an environment conducive to learning19.
To do it well, however, you need to be able to tolerate some failure on your child’s part at first.
No one gets everything right the first time they try it. Making a better decision takes practice.
Studies show that the following steps are essential to providing autonomy support to children for their academic success.
Let your child decide
Give them back the responsibility of learning.
If you have been nagging or punishing your child about homework every single day, it’s time to stop.
That means your child will likely stop doing homework or studying altogether, but it will not stay that way if you also follow the steps below.
Making mistakes is inevitable in the journey of childhood. The short-term setback will yield tremendous benefits in the long run.
Help them internalize the reasons to study
Helping your child internalize the rationale why they should learn and study is the most essential aspect of parent autonomy support20.
Not all types of reasons will work.
In order to develop educational aspirations and internalize learning, the reasons need to be meaningful to the child.
It is easy to fail at this step because adults often present reasons with gaps.
For example, reasons such as knowing more, becoming a lifelong learners and growing as a person are meaningful.
But telling kids to study to get better grades so they can go to college sounds more important to parents than children. This is because we haven’t connected it to what it means to them.
Getting higher grades, going to a better college, and getting a more fulfilling job for a more secure future life is a much better rationale for kids. Pointing out how their future life will be directly impacted is an excellent way to explain why they need to study. Therefore, don’t forget to say this part when giving them the rationale.
Acknowledge feelings and show empathy
Acknowledge and accept your child’s negative feelings if they don’t like to study. Respecting your child’s feelings is an important part of helping them internalize them. It doesn’t mean you are agreeing to it.
You can say, “I know that studying can be hard and not fun sometimes”21 to acknowledge their feelings without agreeing.
Use a tone that conveys autonomy
How you present the rationale for studying and how you acknowledge their feelings matter. If the tone of the message is controlling, for example, using “shoulds”, “musts”, or “have tos”, the child will not feel autonomous.
Instead, express support for personal autonomy and let them choose22.
Help them find optimal challenges
Help your child find exercises or extra-curricular activities that give them a sense of challenge or curiosity. An achievable task should be challenging enough to encourage your child to improve or learn new skills, but not too difficult that they are unable to complete them.
Give positive, constructive feedback
Give your child constructive, positive feedback and suggestions that focus on learning issues, their effort, or their process, not on their ability or the person.
Again, the tone of feedback is very important. Your points for improvement should be presented as suggestions instead of commands.
Create an emotionally supportive environment for your child.
When a parent is warm, positive, and responsive, children feel comfortable expressing their feelings, doubts, and questions.
Close parent-child relationships and parents’ unconditional love contribute to children’s intrinsic motivation.
Find out how to use autonomy supportive parenting to get kids to do chores or how to get older kids to do homework using reverse psychology.
Final thoughts on autonomy supportive parenting
A parent who supports autonomy has a clear primary goal – they want their child to grow up to be capable of making wise decisions. They are less concerned about the child’s grades or whether they complete daily tasks perfectly.
Need Help Motivating Kids?
If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.
It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.
Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.
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