Raising a Happier Child: The Power of Choices
In my conversations with parents I use the word "autonomy" a lot. I tend to just throw the word around assuming everyone knows what autonomy is exactly. Many people view it as a form of independence and I guess you could call it that. But truly, the concept of autonomy is so much more, so I thought I'd take a few moments to really describe autonomy and how understanding it can help you as a parent to reduce power struggles and raise a happier child overall. Basically, autonomy means to have control of oneself. It actually stems from a desire for independence and self-regulation. It's what drives us to eventually become self-sufficient. The desire for autonomy becomes really obvious around the toddler phase, right around the time kids start saying "no" or "I do it myself". This is usually when we see power struggles begin. What those power struggles are really about is the child learning what they can be in control of and what they can't be. They test all sorts of boundaries from this point on because the appropriate level of control they can have over decisions is always evolving. (Remember, they are moving toward becoming self-sufficient as they grow.) So when your child is acting defiant about a certain issue, what they are really saying to you is, "I need more autonomy" or "I need to feel like I have some control or power for myself". Kids learn very quickly what their parents can never make them do: 1. Put food in their body 2. Use the toilet 3. Put clothing on their body 4. Brush their teeth (There are more, but these are the most common.) When a child is refusing to do one of these things, it's a sure sign they're craving more certainty in their own abilities. In some, more extreme cases it can be a sign that the child is feeling powerless or uncertain over something happening in their life. So how does this relate to a child's happiness and self-esteem? The desire for autonomy actually drives the development of self-esteem. Self-esteem is developed through a series of challenges that are either overcome or not. The basic question they are asking here is: "Can I do things on my own." As your child grows and learns they seek out new challenges every day. Think of these challenges as goals, their ultimate goal being to become self-sufficient. Depending on how these challenges/goals are handled, the child can either develop a healthy self-esteem or a poor self-esteem. Also keep in mind it’s not just about failure vs. success. It's more about the opportunity they have to learn from their mistakes and continue to try and meet their goals. An example might be a child learning to tie their own shoes. They may not be able to do it right away, but through trial and error, encouragement, and opportunity they will eventually learn to do it on their own. This provides a drop in the bucket of self-esteem and a child with lots of drops in that bucket will be a happier one. Do you see how self-esteem can be developed through a lot of opportunities for autonomy? That brings me to the concept of choices! If you've taken the Parenting with Love and Logic course with me you've probably heard that offering a lot of choices can help a child be more easy going overall and here is why: By giving your child a lot of little choices, you can help them feel like they DO in fact have some control over themselves, and as a byproduct their self-esteem increases. You're basically telling them: "Here is something you can do all by yourself." All of this, while you, as the parent are still maintaining healthy boundaries for your child. Many parents ask me, "Isn't it instilling entitlement when we are constantly giving so many choices?" and my question to them is, "Well, who is running the show?" You see, you can either be proactive and come up with choices for your child that are within your limits as the parent, or you can be reactive, wait until they fight you for the control, get worn out by the power struggle, then give in... and THAT is what actually creates unhealthy boundaries and entitlement in children. So, offering choices is not relinquishing your authority as a parent, but instead reinforcing it. Now, with all of that said here is a little challenge for you! In order to be proactive, we must think one step ahead of our kiddos. All you have to do is sit down for 5 minutes and write out a few choices you're going to start offering your child every day. Start by listing out common power struggles you are seeing, then write out a few choices you can offer around each one of those power struggles. Feel free to use the 4 topics I listed above as a guide to begin. One example is with tooth brushing. If your child typically gives a lot of resistance about brushing their teeth you can say: "Would you like to brush your teeth before jammies or after?", "Will you brush your top teeth first or your bottom teeth?", "Will you brush your teeth in the upstairs bathroom or downstairs?" *Note: Be sure to offer these choices BEFORE the power struggle even begins, not after! The reason for this is so that you don't inadvertently reinforce resistant behavior. I usually encourage to do a quick brainstorming exercise to help with this. Simply write down a list of common power struggles you're seeing daily. For each power struggle write down a choice you can offer proactively. Try it and let me know how it goes! Hopefully now you can see how autonomy, self-esteem, and choices are all tied together. With these tools you can surely create more harmony in your home and raise a happier child.