If someone were to ask us what we, as parents, want for our children when they grow up, most of us would answer that we want to raise our children to be happy, and become independent, self reliant adults who experience success in their lives. Current research into self-determination theory assumes that human beings are naturally motivated to explore and develop, but that this natural drive can be enhanced or diminished by external factors such as family, society, and culture.
Expanding research into the self-determination theory, Deci and Ryan identified “three innate psychological needs that, if satisfied, allow optimal function and growth”. These needs are: autonomy, or the need to feel free to choose their own behavior; competence, or the need to feel capable of effectively interacting with their environment; and relatedness, or the need to feel close to and meaningfully connected to others
They went on to state that it is important for these needs to be supported by a child’s environment in order for them to emotionally evolve and develop in a healthy way. (Deci and Ryan, 2000).
So, practically speaking, how can we create an environment for our children that will be supportive and help them become these adults?
As parents, we can create an environment that supports autonomy by being involved in our children’s lives while encouraging independence and problem-solving skills. It’s important for parents to give children both age-appropriate autonomy and agency as this will help them develop at an appropriate level.
Following self-determination theory, many child psychologists will tell us that ways in which we can foster autonomy from young age include:
- Allowing children to make choices. By providing age-appropriate opportunities for children to make independent choices and decisions, parents are giving them a healthy sense of agency and control.
- Letting children solve problems on their own. Parents often feel as if they should swoop in and rescue their child when they encounter a challenge. But when problems arise, it’s often more beneficial to offer guidance and encourage children to find the solution independently.
- Letting children struggle (safely). Every child encounters failure at some point. Trying and making mistakes or failing is part of growth. If children do not develop healthy coping mechanisms around failure, they are more vulnerable to anxiety. It is essential for parents to model that failure and making mistakes are essential parts of the learning process. By letting children learn from their mistakes, we are giving them an important opportunity to develop resilience, grit, confidence, and coping skills When children are autonomous, they are more likely to feel capable of making their own healthy choices. By supporting children in the development of autonomy and agency, we also help children learn about family values, social norms, and essential rules, thus supporting competence.
Early in their development our children rely on us for every aspect of their lives, from nourishment to mobility or decision making. As they grow, and become more independent in these ares of living, their needs develop but they still depend on us for love, protection, guidance, and support. Early in their lives we need to keep our children close to ensure their safety. This care builds our children’s sense of security by teaching them that they have a safe place to return to if they venture too far and that we are there to protect them when needed. However, as our children establish their sense of security, we must also encourage them to explore the world beyond the safety net that we provide. This allows our children to test and develop their own capabilities and to find a sense of competence, security, and independence within themselves.
In order to foster competence in young children self-determination theory suggests
- Supporting growth and new challenges by scaffolding and practicing new skills with children. In construction, scaffolding helps supply extra support to the building being erected. When the building is finished, the scaffolding is removed, and the structure is able to stand independently. Parents who use scaffolding education offer children similar support. Scaffolding skills incorporate information and skills children already have. This approach supports children in developing their capabilities in a semi autonomous manner that allows even the youngest children to develop their sense of self worth and competence.
- Providing a rationale and explanation for family rules and behavior expectations. When children understand reasons for rules and the context behind them, they have an easier time supporting and following those rules. This in turns helps children internalize social norm and behaviors which is paramount to being a functional individual within any social dynamic. When children understand what behavior is expected of them, and why, they can internalize these behaviors and develop a sense of adequacy.
- Allowing children to be accountable. The ability of children to hold themselves accountable for their actions is a critical part of becoming independent. Children can not effectively take responsibility for, and internalize their successes unless they are also taught to take responsibilities for their mistakes and failures.
When children develop their capabilities in a way that instills both a sense of success and a notion that they are in control of the choices they make, and outcomes of these choices, chidden develop a healthy sense of self esteem which in turns fosters relatedness.
As parents, we can help our children develop healthy, meaningful relationship with others by building their sense of self-esteem, loving them for who they are, not what they do. Deci and Ryan looked at whether reaching goals builds up a sense of self-worth and found that self-esteem based on achievements tends to be more fragile. “People who base their sense of self-worth on what they have achieved need more reassurance and compare themselves more with others. Children who learn that their worth comes from what they have done, rather than who they are, will be more likely to develop into insecure adults.”
In addition to developing a healthy sense of self-worth and motivation in our chidden, self-determination theory encourages
- Labeling and validating a child’s feelings and perspectives. Validating feelings is an essential component of mental health and growth. By normalizing emotions, parents can help them understand that everyone has challenging moments. This also helps children learn that strong feelings are nothing to be ashamed of.
Self-determination theory shows that children who meet their needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness will feel good about themselves, and will gain motivation to develop, grow, and succeed. Learning about self determination theory could help us, as parents, give our children the tools they need.
Natalie teaches Year 2 classes. She loves arts and craft and everything “do it yourself”, learning about new cultures and languages, and spending free time outdoors.