The Core Emotional Need for Healthy Autonomy and Performance can be defined as helping our children develop their own personalities, abilities and self-confidence as they grow into separately functioning healthy adults. When parents meet the core emotional need for healthy autonomy and performance, the child will develop some or all of the following traits and beliefs: confidence about safety & wellness, independence & competence, a sense of self that is differentiated & developed, security & stability, assertiveness & self-expression, and optimism.1 Children who have had this core emotional need met will consistently, on an emotional level, believe the following messages because of the actions and words of (and the atmosphere provided by) their parents:
I am free to chart my own direction with guidance from trusted advisors.
I am allowed to go places on my own as long as I conduct myself responsibly.
I think my parents worry about me when I get hurt or sick but not overly so.
My parents trust me to make wise choices and the trust grows each year as I prove myself in new situations.
Situations in life will turn out for the best, in general.
If a child really believes those statements, how might that child feel? Confident, encouraged, secure and motivated are just some of the words that come to mind.
Desmond grew up an only child. Both of his parents worked in demanding professional jobs, and his mother was very strict with his schedule. As a child, he was not allowed to play at friends’ homes, (might not be a good influence), not permitted to take the school bus (might get bullied), and not taught to ride a bicycle (might be dangerous). He never cleaned his room or made himself a meal, and his mother made sure she had the last word about what subjects he would take and which (hometown) university he would attend.
During college, Desmond was still expected to come home for dinner every night, and his mother became suspicious of any new friends. Surprisingly, he still managed to get married. At first, his new wife thought his dependence on her was cute. “He needs me”, she thought. Over the next few years, she realized her husband needed her for everything. Outside of the home this became an issue as well—when they tried to run a business together, he relied on her to do his share of the work. Eventually his wife had enough and gave him a “counseling or else” ultimatum.
Rick grew up in a family of sons with an absent father; his mother lived for her sons. She did everything for them and was involved in every aspect of their lives. Rick was a bit shy, and was sometimes teased for being a “mommy’s boy”. When Rick became successful and respected in his chosen professions, the mother beamed. But when he married a beautiful and successful young woman, Rick’s mother was not ready to relinquish her role. She muscled in on every decision, and criticized Rick’s wife constantly. After years of looking like the perfect couple on the outside, the wife had enough and walked out.
What do Desmond and Rick have in common? Their need for healthy autonomy and performance was not adequately met by their parents. One of the goals of parenting is to help our children at different points in their lives make age-appropriate decisions and help them utilize their talents. If we guide and train them, then as adults they will be able to make decisions themselves and achieve a sense of autonomy and competence without having to rely on others in an unhealthy way.
Autonomy and Self-Esteem
When children are very young, they make very few decisions about what to eat, wear, when to take a bath, and so on. However, as they get older, more and more decisions need to be entrusted to them. Unfortunately, many parents do not understand that helping them to mature is a process: some parents feel the need to control every aspect of their child’s life for as long as possible; other parents waive all control as soon as the kid enters secondary school, allowing their child to make many decisions that are not appropriate for their age, which causes just as many problems. If parents are over-involved and too controlling, or under-involved and let go too soon, children do not develop autonomy and competence as they age.
When parents communicate any or all of the messages above, explicitly or implicitly, their children’s self-esteem is eroded and they are likely to feel exasperated, insecure and unmotivated. So many parents are not aware of the messages they convey when they are controlling and become over-involved. They think they are being caring and thorough, but their children have a different perception.
Autonomy and Motivation
What exactly is this sense of autonomy? It is the need to be self-determined and to have a choice in the initiation, maintenance, and regulation of an activity.2 When older children and adults develop autonomy they believe their behavior is truly chosen by them rather than imposed by some external source.3 Dr. Edward Deci, a psychology and social sciences professor and expert in the field of human motivation hypothesized that any occurrence which undermines people’s feeling of autonomy and leaves them feeling controlled decreases their inner, or intrinsic, motivation and is likely to have other negative consequences.4
Dr. Mark Lepper and his team at Stanford University studied children whose parents and teachers held them to education strategies such as goals, deadlines, threats, and assessments from the time they woke up till the time they went to bed. It was no surprise that they found this kind of hyper-control having a negative impact on the children’s intrinsic motivation and killing the children’s sense of autonomy. They also found that some who began as compliant later became defiant.5 Certainly this does not mean that children should be allowed to do only what they like and that discipline is not appropriate. Limits and expectations are involved in the other core emotional needs, but an overemphasis on discipline, rules and limits proves counterproductive.
When children are maturing in their autonomy and competence, accomplishing tasks that are age-appropriate will be a motivation unto itself. Each victory and new skill adds to their overall self-esteem and their intrinsic motivation. They will eventually believe that they are able to deal with life and the world in which they live. Of course the task cannot be too easy, it must meet what Deci calls the “optimal challenge”, which essentially is a meaningful challenge to which one must give one’s best.6
While we encourage parents to be actively engaged in training their children, sometimes there are simply too many things we have in mind that we want to teach them: table manners, personal hygiene, how to dress appropriately. (We don’t want our kids going over to someone’s house, leaving things all over the place, and then hearing through the grapevine that people are asking if our kids were raised in a barn!) At the same time, as the kids get older, we have to be able to let go or at least communicate with them in a way that does not show disdain or disapproval when it’s not an issue about right and wrong. This will put us well on our way to meeting the core emotional need for autonomy and performance.