It’s also important, however, to consider the value of autonomy supportive parenting. If we just look at responsiveness and demandingness, we might miss another key element of great parenting – and that is supporting our kids’ autonomy. Autonomy supportive parents provide their kids with a sense of control over their own choices. (This will be age and stage appropriate of course.) Autonomy supportive parents will still state their expectations, but they’ll also involve their child in discussions around boundary-setting and problem-solving. Parents and kids work together to ensure that boundaries, limits or expectations are well understood by all parties, and that everyone can work within them or towards them. This validates a child’s feelings about limits and boundaries, which in turn leads to greater buy-in from the child.
If a parent holds all the control, setting the rules and dictating how things will go, they may be scoring high on demandingness but there’s very little responsiveness and no autonomy support. They end up being authoritarian, like our friend the Sergeant Major.
When we parent in an authoritative and autonomy supportive way, we’re also likely to move away from punishments and rewards. Those commonly used ‘tools’ become unnecessary because our kids will develop self-determined motivation as their core needs (relatedness, competency and autonomy) are met in responsive relationship with their parents. To paraphrase author Alfie Kohn, autonomy supportive parenting is what we do with our kids, rather than to our kids.
And it looks something like this:
• Providing limits, but with clear reasons for any requests
• Responsively recognising your child’s feelings and perspectives
• Offering choices, encouraging initiative and involving your child in problem-solving
• Minimising demands and controlling techniques (the category rewards and punishments fall into)
A move away from parental control towards greater child-involvement and autonomy may sound a bit like the easy option, perhaps even a bit Jellyfish, but it’s far from it. This parenting style requires a strong relationship and deep connection with our kids. It also requires openness to hear our kids’ perspectives, as well as humility on our part to admit that we don’t always get it right. So yes, a lot of intentionality and effort! But studies show that parenting authoritatively, while still supporting our kids’ autonomy, yields wonderful results. When we let go of control and instead support our kids to make good choices for themselves, they do better at school, they chose better friends, they’re less likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol and other high-risk behaviours, and they grow up to be great decision-makers.