Autonomy is one of the great motivators of human behavior. In Daniel Pink’s bestselling book Drive he elaborates on the research that mastery, autonomy, and purpose are keys to motivating people at work, school and in life. When it comes to children, it is often faster and simpler to tell kids what to do directly or to do it ourselves. Over time, however, this can lead to kids who feel less in control, which can result in frustration, helplessness or even depression.
The inverse is also true: the more we trust our children to direct their own lives, the more satisfied and capable they become. Stanford professor emeritus Albert Bandura identified four factors that influence our belief in our ability to succeed: 1) past instances of success 2) knowledge of people like us succeeding 3) being told we are capable 4) being in the right physical and emotional state. Try some of these strategies out with your own child in 2020 to improve your relationship and build lasting skills!
1. Ask not what you can do for your child, but what your child can do for you. For example, many four-year-olds can match socks to help with the laundry. Many five-year-olds can water plants or dust around the house. Many six-year-olds can set or clear the table or select a dessert for their lunch.
2. When in doubt, plan it out. A great way for students to take ownership of a task or routine is to have them create the plan. If you want your child to get out the door by a certain time, ask them what the steps are and have them write or draw out a plan from waking up to leaving the house. Let them call the shots, but provide adult reality checks as needed.
3. Examples in film and literature. Pippi Longstocking is one of the most independent young characters in literature—running a house by herself. She advocates for herself in a strong, non-violent way, and she takes care of many of her own needs. Kids can learn a lot from fictional role models, especially if they find a dimension they can relate on.
4. Let them be their own advocate. Build your child’s voice by supporting interactions across age groups and authority levels. You can help your child practice asking questions of adults by rehearsing together and then trying it out in restaurants, doctor’s offices, public transit or even calling into a radio show.