In a Nutshell: It can be scarey to allow children to express themselves and think different opinions. When we encourage “Psychological Autonomy,” kids might not turn out just like us, but they are more likely to become free-thinking, independent, interesting people that we can be proud of.
I am usually delighted when I see my children becoming unique individuals. I normally like it when they show independent thinking and dress up like a cow for the day or report they want to be a pirate for a living. But sometimes I struggle with the desire to make them conform to what I think about the world, and turn into who I think they should be. It’s like a life-long game of Simon Says. “Simon Says… dress how Mommy wants.” “Simon Says…enjoy my hobbies.” There is a wonderful term used by Brent L. Top, Bruce A. Chadwick, and Janice Garrett in a study of how to help kids avoid at-risk behavior such as stealing, early sexual activity, and drug use. They say one of the most important predictors of avoiding such behaviors comes from kids being raised in families where they are given Psychological Autonomy. Different from managing children’s behavior, this has to do with giving children permission to think their own ideas and form their own perceptions of the world. In this study, over one third of teens studied said that their parents sought to control them by psychological manipulation, inducing guilt, or dismissing their thoughts and opinions. One teen in the study reported:
One of my parents is very domineering and opinionated. If you disagree, get ready to have a debate to the death or just give up to avoid trouble. In our family there is only one ‘right’ opinion and you’d better be sure that yours matches it.
Are you ever this parent? The researchers explain some of the consequences of such an environment:
Under these circumstances youth fail to have confidence in their own feelings, ideas, and abilities and often emotionally withdraw inside themselves and develop emotional problems such as depression, eating disorders, and even thoughts of suicide. Young people who feel their ideas, thoughts, and feelings have been minimized, ignored, or outright ridiculed by their parents may seek out a peer group that will give credibility to their opinions and feelings….When parents suppress a child’s freedom of thought and expression, sometimes the only way that child feels he or she can express a sense of individual identity and value is to rebel.
One of the most basic human needs is to feel like we can think independently of others and make our own choices. Children need to feel free to explore ideas, express themselves, and even to disagree in a respectful way. During the teen years especially, this is not only a good idea, it is absolutely vital. Here are a couple ways to allow Psychological Autonomy to flourish in your family.
- Let them talk. When a child says something you disagree with, responses like “That’s ridiculous!” or “You’ll change your mind when you get older” slam the door closed on communication. Keep the door open by using statements like, “I can tell you’ve been thinking about this. Tell me more.” Letting kids get their thoughts out shows them it is safe to explore ideas without getting in trouble. It also keeps the conversation going, so you can let your child know where you stand on issues and counsel with them.
- Ask their opinion. Current events in the news are great topics for conversation, even with small children. Movies and TV can also provide opportunities to express ideas. Try asking, “What would you do?” or “Do you think they made the right choice?” I like to do this driving to school in the morning with our “Music Critics Club”. We’ll choose a random radio station and let a song play (when it’s appropriate). Then, we all rate the song from 1 to 10. They get to practice expressing their opinions, and not jumping on people who think differently (like when a little sister gives a big brother’s favorite song a -28).
- Let them explore interests outside of yours. It is so easy to want kids to be in drama if you were, play football because you did, or be a ballerina because you always wanted to be one. Psychological Autonomy includes letting children try activities that might not be what you wanted, and supporting their efforts.
Allowing children Psychological Autonomy can be a painful experience. We may be scared that if we don’t tie our kids to the mast, they may fall overboard. But as this study suggests, when kids feel like they have room to think and freedom to express themselves, they are actually less likely to rebel. Some people may use the concept of Psychological Autonomy as an excuse for lax parenting. But for kids to develop properly, parents need to balance this freedom of thought with rules and consequences as well. In fact, this same study also found that Parental Regulation in the home is another strong indicator of kids avoiding at-risk behaviors. (For more about the balance between warmth and control, see this post.)
So, if your child comes up with some off-the-wall comment or announces they want to collect ear wax for a living, remember they probably will forget it before the week is over, but they will always remember that you valued what they said. We may not end up with little thumbnail photos of ourselves when all is done, but if we end up with free-thinking, independent, interesting people instead, I’d say the trade is worth it.