The Role Of Autonomy In Developing Future Leaders (A Post For Parents)

Parents who support and encourage autonomy create more resilient children who are able to navigate life’s challenges. How can you balance this with your role as a caretaker and protector?

December is a time of holiday preparations. For many parents of high school seniors, it’s also the time for a different ritual— finishing college applications and waiting for decisions. Even though that time was a few years ago for our family, December still reminds me to have empathy for families going through this special phase of growth.

(This is Part One of a Three-Part Series on Autonomy-Supportive Parenting)

One Parent’s View of Leaving the Nest

Female bluebird leaving birdhouseWhether the end of high school signals college, work, military service or something else, it often marks the end of one stage and the beginning of another—leaving the “nest.”So here’s my parental confession. Throughout most of our daughter’s last year in high school, I felt as if my husband and I were cramming for a test. It seemed that time was running short to jam all of the necessary life values and skills into her so that she could function independently. Had we taught her all that she would need to make good judgments and stay safe? What important lessons did she need in the last year of being under our wings? Was it too late? Yikes!I got through that year by taking deep breaths and reciting the mantra: “Don’t push the river. It will flow by itself.”

Understanding Autonomy

Like most parents, my concern was motivated by good intentions and directed by a lack of information about the natural processes of adolescence. Yes, I confess I thought it was my job as a parent to give my child independence. As if it’s something we parents can bestow. Little did I realize that autonomy is inevitable like learning to walk—unstoppable by either parent or child.

What is autonomy, why is it so important and how does it develop? Edward Deci, one of the pioneers in research about autonomy, self-determination and self-motivation says that autonomy is acting “in accord with one’s self—it means feeling free and volitional in one’s actions” (1995).

Other researchers have found some “trends” about autonomy: 1) it develops naturally, 2) it’s a basic human need, and 3) it provides an element of satisfaction with life.

How is this knowledge helpful to parents? When seen through the lens of normal developmental processes, an adolescent’s drive to separate from parents may seem less like a personalized battle, and more like the natural order of things. For example, recently a friend’s son decided that he no longer needed his parents to drive him to school. Despite the strident tone of his delivery, it’s likely that he was mainly motivated by a need to assert his independence. Remembering this can take the sting out of what sometimes feels like outright rejection.

Healthy Autonomy, Healthy Behavior

Psychologists Brown and Ryan’s studies of self-determination theory (2004) show that children’s social behavior naturally becomes more self-regulated as they grow. Autonomy is not only a naturally occurring part of growing up, but a sign of healthy development.

In studies of children’s abilities to manage their own behavior at school, Brown and Ryan found that autonomy and a greater ability to self-regulate is often associated with greater pleasure and interest in studies, resulting in the ability to handle stresses more effectively—all critical components of healthy and authentic independence.

Autonomy-Supportive Parenting

Lest you think that I am advocating a hands-off approach to parenting adolescents, fear not: I have not lost my mind. Parents still need to monitor and guide the behavior of adolescents.

The good news is that most children will develop into independent beings naturally. Of course there are real differences in maturation rates, capabilities and environmental influences, so that the timing of autonomy development looks different for different people. As parents, we need to be tolerant of our children’s particular rates of development.

One of the major tasks of parenting is the constant balancing act between protection and caretaking on the one hand, and support for increasing autonomy and resilience on the other. Parents are most effective when they are autonomy-supportive.

There’s no formula for how much protection and how much letting go constitutes autonomy-supportive parenting. It’s different for each emerging adult and parent. Constant awareness that this is a natural process can act as a compass. Each situation requires a different balance, and autonomy must be tempered with responsibility. No wonder parenting is such a hard job.

Here are just a few suggestions about how to be autonomy-supportive parents:

  • Provide opportunities for children to experience success on their own terms to build real competence.
  • Teach them to develop empathy for others.
  • Help them build a network of supportive adults—teachers, coaches, family members.
  • Support them in learning to notice, name and regulate their emotions.

It’s a difficult channel to navigate. No parent is perfect! One guideline supported by research is to think of autonomy as nourishment. Children and adults need it to thrive.

Just remember the mantra: “Don’t push the river, it will flow by itself.”

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