One of parents' most important responsibilities is helping children learn to govern themselves. According to experts, the best parenting combines firm expectations and reasonable freedom for children to make their own choices. When parents provide a good balance between rules and freedom, children learn to act responsibly of their own free will, even when parents aren't around.
Options, Not Commands
Children have an inborn desire for independence, and wise parents respect and respond to this need. Accordingly, children best learn how to make good choices when they're given options within acceptable limits. Most child-rearing experts recommend that children be given as many choices as possible and appropriate for their age level. Parents who issue orders or commands can stunt their children's ability to make choices for themselves. Instead, parents should look for opportunities to create options for their children, then let them decide.
This kind of parenting shows children that their independent thoughts and feelings are valued and matter. It also encourages children to see adults as providers of help and guidance rather than forces of control and domination. And, perhaps most importantly, it fosters a sense of freedom, which in turn fosters a sense of responsibility and helps children enjoy life more.
The Power of Freedom
Studies show that as children are given freedom to make choices, they become more willing to follow parental guidance. According to Hart and Newell, "When children and teens are given latitude for decision-making in areas that matter less, they are more likely to feel trusted and empowered to choose rightly and conform to parental expectations in areas that matter more."2
Parents should keep in mind their children's personalities and maturity as they decide how much freedom to allow. Even when given reasonable freedom, some children still feel constrained and unfree. Another child given the same amount of freedom might feel too free. It is the perception of freedom that is so important for parents to help their child acquire, and they need to be sensitive to each individual child's personality in this respect.
Giving children reasonable freedom teaches them how to handle their freedom within a safe environment. If they make mistakes, their parents are there to explain what went wrong and to give them another chance. It's possible that children who are given generous freedom will make more mistakes than those who are told what to do more, but research shows that greater freedom helps children become stronger and more mature individuals.
As children grow, they should be given more and more independence. At a young age, children can select the clothes they wear, the food they eat, places to sit, and other small decisions. Older children can have more of a say in choosing appropriate times to be at home, when and where to study, and which friends to associate with. The goal is to prepare children for the day they will leave their family and live without parental control.
Here are practical suggestions for helping children learn to govern themselves:
- Provide options and choices whenever possible. Allow choices within reasonable limits. For example, it wouldn't be wise to give your pre-schooler the option of going home from the park or not. Instead, when you decide it's time to go home, ask if he wants to hop, skip, or race you to the car. Give your older children options such as cleaning their rooms in the morning or when they get home from school.
- Give your children reminders and warnings. When you provide prompts, you help your children make good choices. For example, buy them a watch with an alarm so they won't forget when it's time to come home for dinner.
- Anticipate problems. Try to predict situations that will tempt your children to misbehave and talk with them about it ahead of time. For example, before you go into the grocery store, let them know you will not buy treats because it will spoil their dinner. Reasoning with them beforehand can prevent whining and tantrums in the check-out line.
With older children, consult rather than command. When older children and teenagers are faced with choices, they respond much better to discussion and suggestions than to lectures and orders. Try these steps:
- Listen attentively and reflect back what they are feeling. ("So, it sounds to me like you're upset because ...")
- Use statements with "I" instead of "you." ("I don't understand why you suddenly want to quit the team" instead of "You're just a quitter")
- Communicate your thoughts about potential options and consequences rather than make pronouncements. ("I'm wondering how you're going to make the college team if you quit playing ball," instead of "You won't make the college team if you quit.")
- Leave room for them to solve the problem themselves. ("What do you want to happen?" "What are you going to do about this?")
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Deci, E. L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B. C., & Leone, D. R. (1994). Facilitating internalization: The self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62(1), 119-142.
- Hart, C. H., Newell, L. D., & Sine, L. L. (2000). Proclamation-based principles of parenting and supportive scholarship. In Dollahite, D. C. (Ed.) Strengthening Our Families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 100-123). Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.
- Lamborn, S. D., Mounts, N. S., Steinberg, L., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development, 62, 1049-1065.
- Rodgers, D. B. (1998, May), Supporting autonomy in young children. Young Children, 75-80.
- Smith, C. A., Cudaback, D., Goddard, H. W., & Myers-Walls, J. (1994). National extension parent education model. Manhattan, KS: Kansas Cooperative Extension Service.