Adequately meeting the core emotional need for autonomy and performance means balancing between providing the right amount of protection with increasing freedom and empowerment. There are five “must-dos” when it comes to meeting this core emotional need—the first two are simple—watch out for the exasperation interactions and don’t neglect the first core need while working on the second, since they are all intertwined. Here are three more steps that will help parents steer clear of the Domain of Impaired Autonomy.
Provide Age-Appropriate Choices
As part of Deci’s research on motivation (which we mentioned in Chapter Nine), he found that people who are given more choices regarding tasks showed more enthusiasm and spent more time doing tasks than those not given a choice at all.1 They tested this by giving two groups a puzzle-solving experiment. One group was given a choice as to which puzzles they would work on and how long they would spend completing them. The other group was not given a choice but had the same amount of time at their disposal. As suspected, the group that was given a choice spent more time on the puzzles and reported enjoying the task more than the other group. There is something about having our say in a task that will get us to be more fully involved, and then greater intrinsic motivation will develop from within us.
Providing choices is a very important part in developing our children’s autonomy. It draws them into the task and helps them take responsibility for it. But more than anything, it shows our level of respect for them. Even adults are much more motivated when they are given the choice to own a task rather than having the task forced upon them; rigidity and inflexibility with children may prevent the core emotional need for autonomy from being met.
Part of children becoming autonomous in a healthy way is knowing where their rights end and others’ rights begin.2 If children are old enough, parents can explain why it would be inappropriate for them to engage in certain tasks. This will help them to accept limits without feeling inadequate. The following examples are not absolutes, as some children mature quicker than others, but should be useful as general guidelines.
While it is helpful for babies to learn to be at ease around others, most parents are wise to not expose their newborns to too many people for the sake of protecting them from germs. Once babies hit the stage where they are a bit clingy to Mommy (see Chapter Seven) parents can encourage their babies to not be fearful around others by holding their children securely in their arms while introducing them to other people. Parents should speak with a gentle and encouraging tone of voice, and never have an angry and disappointed tone if their babies are not yet ready to go to others.
From about three months onwards, babies can learn by being around other babies. Especially after babies can sit up, there can be interaction between them and their parents. Babies should also learn to play alone and keep themselves occupied. Many parents never allow their children out of sight at all. A child lying down can play with a mobile above the bed. A child who can sit up can play with safe and appropriate crib or play pen toys. Otherwise, these children will not be able to be by themselves at all when separated for only a few minutes. Parents should be able to leave their child for a few seconds at a time with toys, always ensuring the baby is safe in the room. Parents can leave the door open and supervise without their children actually seeing them.3 This in no way implies that parents are to ever leave a baby for more than a few seconds, and always within view, and not at all if they can crawl.
The Toddler Years
One thing to keep in mind at this age is that children’s brains develop faster in the first three years than at any other time—how exciting! Of course everyone has heard of the well-known stage at this time that is specifically related to autonomy—“The Terrible Twos”. Toddlers want so desperately to do things themselves but they do not want to separate from their parents, so they are frustrated. They also do not know how to do many things and will have to learn and make mistakes, and this also frustrates them.
They should be allowed to explore their room, toys, and other safe objects, and learn to interact with their surroundings. Remember that parents are to provide “age-appropriate” autonomy, which means reasonable limits on one side and basic safety on the other.
Play is their primary work, up to five to six hours per day. They want to run, climb, and jump. Notwithstanding toddlers love of repetition, when fathers are spending time at the playground with their children, they should ensure that their kids try a variety of physical movements.
When Sonia was about a year old, I read a baby book that said when babies are able to sit up in a high chair comfortably that they should be able to start feeding themselves, and to not worry about the mess—put newspaper down under the high chair, and give them a bath afterwards, the book said. What the book did not say was to use common sense—that was probably implied! One day a friend came into town and we went to a restaurant for lunch—after fifteen minutes, the older and more experienced parent begged me to stop the madness. I proceeded to help Sonia finish her lunch, helped the waitress clean up the disaster area, and waited another year or so before trying that again in public.
To encourage healthy autonomy, parents can provide choices, such as what type of toys to play with, which books to read and which playgrounds to visit. Sometimes children this age will be overwhelmed by choices, so a parent may want to offer just two choices, e.g., “Darling, would you like to do some painting or read a book?” “Which DVD would you like to watch—Busytown or Sing Along Songs?” Different children will have different preferences. Our son couldn’t care less what he wore at this age whereas our daughter practically came out of the womb with an opinion about which hairclip she would use, and which dress she would wear. Our son was more concerned with which toy he would carry around with him for the whole day.
Again, we have to stress that these decisions need to be age-appropriate. Parents will still need to make important decisions, and take charge in many areas, such as when to go to sleep, take a bath, eat, watch TV or be on a computer. Also, children should not get the impression that it is their right to choose everything; more on that in the next section.
By four to seven years of age, children are able to do many more things on their own. Some examples of tasks that children this age can do on their own, or with just a little help, are getting dressed, tying their own shoelaces, helping to set the table before dinner, picking up their toys, packing their own bag (6-7 years of age), taking care of a pet and feeding it (6-7 years), and doing their own homework (7 years).
Parents will still need to take charge of, or at least monitor, things like going to bed on time, waking up on time, doing homework (ensure that homework is done by the child, not the parents!), taking a bath (boys especially needs reminders at this age), spending time with parents, and facilitating other interests or activities.
In everyday situations, problems that they encounter should be brought out in the open for some discussion. At this age, parents need to be more directive, but whenever possible, they would do well to provide opportunities for their children to express their opinion, rather than always telling them what to do. Remember that play is still more important than work (e.g., if they are taking piano lessons, and you want them to practice a bit everyday, you may want to sit with them and make it into a fun activity or else it may become a battle which would be counterproductive).
Children who are at the pre-teen stage may develop strong tastes about their clothes or hairstyles. Allow them freedom in this area with a bit of guidance (but parents should follow their own conscience—they do not have to let their daughter wear a micro-miniskirt just because the neighbor’s kids are wearing them). Parents should continue to encourage autonomy, allowing their children to do their own tasks without interfering, which will be a temptation for many parents. Some kids will continue to enjoy using their imagination and playing games in a pretend world, and parents should not embarrass them when they want to talk about such things.4
Choices that can be provided:
• Choice of extracurricular activities
• Choice of clothing (especially around twelve years old)
• Choice of music (parents should monitor lyrics to see what they are promoting)
• Kind of birthday party they get to have (if they are having a nice party that year)
• What they would like to do during “dates” with each parent
• Whether or not to have sleepovers—parents should ensure basic safety is implemented.
As the child grows older and her need for autonomy increases, the need for parents to be directive decreases. When children encounter difficulties, parents should talk about the problem and ask them what choices they have about how to overcome them. Parents should draw out their children’s opinions, not just lecture them and tell them what to do. After drawing them out, parent and child can discuss things together. For navigating autonomy in the pre-teen and adolescent years, we strongly recommend reading the book Teen-Proofing for help with autonomy and limits. The author (John Rosemond) hits the nail on the head when it comes to figuring out the right balance.5 On this topic, Rosemond echoes Dr. Michael Popkin, founder of Active Parenting, who says, “Make the problem their problem.”6 And who could forget the quote from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”7
So let’s assume that we are trying to give our children choices. Even then, the style of communication could send the wrong message. Parents can give their children a choice but may communicate it in a way that makes the child feel “put down”, as opposed to letting the child feel “we are on the same team”. Especially when dealing with young children, the gentleness of a parent’s tone and the words a parent uses are crucial.
For example, a parent may say in an authoritarian tone, “Today we are going to the park; decide quickly which toy you want to play with.” This is giving the child a choice, but how was it said? The harsh tone communicates that the child is secondary to the parent’s agenda. As mentioned in Chapter Four, words only account for a small part of what we communicate to others; tone of voice and body language/facial features are much more important. A better way to talk to the child would be, “Hi sweetie, we are going to have fun today. Which toy would you like to bring to the park?” This conveys a vastly different message to the child. Or imagine a mom speaking with her very young child about having lunch. Instead of impatiently barking, “I want you to eat now. I will only let you go to the park if you finish eating,” wouldn’t it be better if the mom kindly but assertively beamed, “We will eat lunch first, and when we are finished, we can go to the park.”
There is a world of difference between the two. Both are spelling out a task but one is done in a way that shows parent and child are allies, not “I am up here” and “You are down there.” (There are obviously times when a parent may have to raise his or her voice, such as when a child is in danger or about to hurt herself or another child. When we raise our voice only in rare circumstances, the child will know that something serious is being conveyed.) Of course, these instances are not a big deal if they occur as one-off interactions, but repeat them day after day as part of your lifestyle and you will end up with exasperation. The temperament of the child will determine how long that will take, and in what way it will surface.
Keep Agenda in Check
Sometimes we have underlying motives, not always obvious to us, that are pushing us to accomplish things through our kids. This motivation is so strong and forceful that it is done at the expense of our children’s need for healthy autonomy and performance. In order to meet this core emotional need, parents need to honestly ask themselves, “What is my agenda?” Here are some questions for further self-examination:
Do I live through my children? Am I trying to meet an underlying need in myself?
Do I feel the need to be ultra close to my children because of the poor quality of my marriage?
Do I feel the need to protect my children because in my heart I believe the world is a dangerous place?
Am I negative about them making their own decisions because a pessimistic parent raised me?
If you answered “Yes” to any of the above, go through the questionnaires in Chapter Three of our marriage book, I Choose Us,8 so you can identify the lifetraps you have, and how they specifically relate to meeting your children’s core emotional need for healthy autonomy and performance. If you have any of the lifetraps from this domain to a strong degree, then there is reason to believe your drive to be over-involved with your children is a result of your own upbringing and some unmet need. Parents who are able to gain awareness in these areas will be able to identify their underlying unhealthy drive and motivation. Being aware is a huge first step.
We frequently say, “Dysfunction is the gift that keeps on giving.” Here are two real-life examples of parents whose own lifetraps caused them to pass down similar lifetraps to their children.
A mother enmeshed with her twins: Gayle had twin daughters. She doted on them and gave them every advantage she could, monetarily and in education. Gayle was also over-involved and controlling. She did not allow her daughters to do what normal teens do on their own and protected them from taking risks of any kind. In a city where all kids either rode the school bus or took the subway, Gayle forbade her kids to do either. When it came time for the teens to go to university, they decided to live in different cities from their mother and each other. One of the girls was able to cope because of her temperament, but the other girl was not. Filled with fear, she had to drop out of school, move home, and was not able to go out alone. Now over 30 years old, she is still dependent on others, is enmeshed with her mother, and frozen in fear—truly trapped by vulnerability to harm and illness.
A father passing down negativity: Ben’s son, Zack, was all excited about entering an art competition. Although Zack was good at drawing, Ben was not happy when he found out about it and completely berated and humiliated his son. Ben barred Zack from entering any such competitions because he thought they were a complete waste of time. Ben was so deeply filled with negativity that he could not imagine how anything good would come from such an attempt. This left a painful scar on Zack emotionally, which he brought into his adult life when he became a father. Now Zack finds it very difficult to try anything new, and constantly hears a voice, “It’s no use, why bother, what’s the point?”
When it comes to letting our children grow up, it is so tempting to hold on tightly, or even to give up in despair. At the end of the day, we reason with them and plead our case, all the while showing them that we love them and trust them. When we let our children make choices and give them age-appropriate freedom, we are meeting their core emotional need for healthy autonomy and performance, and we are also maintaining our connection.