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How Self-Determination Theory Can Help Parents Raise Independent Kids


Jun. 7, 2021 Fatherly

After all, control in the form of harsh discipline, ultimatums, yelling or coercion often feels like the best way to protect children and teach them to be good people. But a child who is forced to behave isn’t an independent and self-determined child. So how do you raise a kid who will be autonomous and make life easier by reducing caregiving burdens? That’s a puzzle that might best be solved by self-determination theory.

What is Self-Determination Theory

Introduced to psychology in the 1980s by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, self-determination theory (or SDT) suggests that people perform best when three fundamental needs are satisfied: They feel a sense of autonomy, experience mastery and competence and feel a genuine connection to others. And research seems to suggest that’s as true for adults as it is for kids.

“SDT proposes that when children understand why something is important they feel autonomous,” explains Dr. Genevieve Mageau, a researcher and psychology professor at University of Montreal. “They can act in a structured environment and feel completely autonomous if they agree with the rules and the structure.”

Importantly, SDT says parents are being counterproductive when they attempt to force a child into understanding through controlling methods like punishment, awards, yelling or coercion. “The controlling behaviors simply do not work for the internalization of values,” Mageau says. “When they feel controlled, children either resist or submit themselves. But they don’t necessarily take the time to reflect about whether what they’re doing is important.”

The Science of Parenting with Autonomy Support

There is research to show that when parents take the time to support their child’s autonomy, those children perform better. In 2007, for instance, a collaborative study between researchers from Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Illinois looked at psychological and academic outcomes in relation to autonomy supporting parenting. Researchers followed 806 Chinese and American seventh graders for 6 months, measuring self-reported levels of autonomy support or control from parents, along with the children’s own sense of emotional health and academic achievement. Grades were also measured.

Researchers found that reports of less control and more support of autonomy from parents were highly correlated with better academic achievement. But not only that, those children experienced increased levels of emotional and mental well being.

A more recent meta-analysis published in 2015 by researchers from the University of Texas Austin looked at 36 studies related to children and self-determination theory. The researchers wrote that they did, in fact, find a correlation between autonomy support and positive outcomes in academic achievement. But they also noted positive outcomes were seen in related areas including “autonomous motivation, psychological health, perceived competence, perceived control, engagement and effort, attitudes toward school, self-regulation, and executive functioning.”

Mageau notes that while these studies show the promise of SDT, there is also plenty of research that shows typical methods of parental discipline and behavior modification are counter productive. “Threatening children, punishment, guilt inducement. All those behaviors have been related to negative outcomes, repeatedly,” she explains. “What SDT does is show that any human being that feels controlled will not result in positive outcomes compared to when we support their autonomy.”

How to Raise Autonomous Kids via Self-Determination Theory

The main lesson that SDT offers parents is to give up a bit of control. But that doesn’t mean complete, hands-off, free-range parenting. Relinquishing control is more about finding new strategies that help a child understand why it’s important to act in a way parents want them to act.

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