Over the last nine years, I’ve been constantly reminded that parenting is all about the balance between control and independence.

During the early years (3-8), your child is figuring out who they are while you’re learning how to parent them. It’s tough. And it gets more challenging when kids are trying to assert their independence.

Most parents probably want to raise independent, strong children who grow up, leave home and be successful. We want them to start a family if they’d like to and we want to be there for it all.

Helping them find independence in those early years is where it all starts. But giving freedom and autonomy means giving up some control. How in the world do we do that?

This is where self-determination theory can be helpful. Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan introduced self-determination theory (SDT) in the 1980s.

Self-determination theory suggests that people perform at their best when three needs are fulfilled:

• Competence: People desire mastery of skills. When they are equipped with the skills needed for success, they’re more likely to take action to achieve their goals.

• Connection: People need people. We need a sense of belonging and attachment.

• Autonomy: People need to feel in control of their behavior and goals.

Highly self-determined people tend to:

• Believe they have control over their own lives. They are motivated and, when presented with challenges, they will work hard to overcome them.

• Have high self-motivation. They don’t depend on external motivators to achieve their goals. They will set goals and work toward them.

• Base their actions on their own goals and behaviors. They will take steps to bring them closer to their goals.

• Take responsibility for their actions. They will accept the praise or the blame for their choices and actions.

Those are all traits I desire for my family. We can help our kids grow in this by improving self-awareness, decision-making skills and goal setting. Now, we understand what SDT is and how it can help our kids become self-determined.

So how do we help them develop self-determination?

Here are a few scenarios where you can practically apply SDT to help your kids become more independent:

• Dressing themselves: One of the easiest ways to help your kids gain independence is through dressing themselves. Let them choose what they want to wear and don’t complain when they do. Sometimes we just gotta accept that they may not match. Yes, we have run errands with a 5-year-old wearing ladybug wings and antennas. No big deal!

Pro-tip: If you need their clothes to match for a special occasion, give them some options. There is still independence within boundaries.

• Household chores: Ask yourself, what can they do?

• Daily tasks: Some tasks need to be done in the morning or afternoon. Ask your child to help you make a list of what needs to be done each day. Where possible, tell them what needs to happen and by when, but give them the freedom to get it done on their terms. They know what needs to happen, but they have the independence to determine how they do it.

• Non-structured, free play: Do you ever feel like your child wants you just for entertainment? I do. But that wasn’t my childhood. Sure, times have changed, but we can still encourage our kids to imagine and create.

If they don’t know where to start, give them some ideas and turn them loose. It’s amazing what my kids will come up with when left to their own imaginations.

• Weekly schedule: Life’s busy. My kids are busy with school events and sports. That means we try to plan out our week.

We like to have a family game night and a movie night, and we often let the kids decide what those nights look like. We have also scheduled free Saturdays. They can pick where we go and what we do within reason (because the 5-year-old would have us headed to Disney).

We set the boundaries and they get to pick what happens.

Helping our children develop self-determination early will help them become independent as they grow. The process isn’t always easy. As they gain independence, you have to give up some control.

Be patient and remember that encouragement and positive feedback go a long way in raising independent kids.

Mitchell Qualls is the operations director at First Things First. Contact him at mitchell@firstthings.org

Mitchell Qualls is the operations director at First Things First. Contact him at mitchell@firstthings.org

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