Polly Elly’s Parent School session on The Perils of Too Much Control & The Incredible Magic of Autonomy did not disappoint. Some kids are indeed born more naturally driven than others, but there is a lot in what we do as parents that also shapes their ability to grow their self-determination and autonomy. Polly uncovered a simple three-step approach to increasing this spark and lifelong trait in your children. Whether they are entirely unmotivated to somewhat driven in nature — there are skills and lessons you might want to adopt after reading.

1) Let Go of Things That You Don’t Need to Control for Your Kids

Polly cautions that fear can get in the way of letting go of control. It’s up to us as parents to be confident in where we will step in and stay in our lane to alleviate their fears in some of these areas.

A few things Polly says should be off limits to parents are:

  1. Clothes: practicing a “your fashion, your business” approach can encourage kids’ self-expression. If you know they are forgetting something essential, don’t force them to change, but instead, say — ”I’ll bring this along in case you get cold later.” 
  2. Food: having some ground rules around how much dessert they consume daily is A-OK, but micromanaging what they eat and when could be laying the tracks for eating disorders later. This can be one of the most complex issues to treat people on as well, Polly warns.
  3. TV: again, healthy ground rules are okay, such as no TV during the week (Monday through Thursday) or limiting television settings is a good thing —  but there should be fewer cops and robbers when it comes to parenting.

“Kids who get dragged around become a drag to you,” says Polly.

Give them the space and freedom to decide and be independent. If you are about to run errands or drag them to a function and know some areas of the day might be hard, talk about it with them first. Children should be given the time to adjust what they need. When it comes to our agendas, give them as much freedom as possible to learn to express themselves. Focus on the lessons you’re teaching them instead of areas we sometimes overstep in wanting to control for them.

2) Wait and Take Time to Relate to Them

Relatedness can get in the way of productivity (it’s true!), but this step is essential and matters much more to kids. Polly says, “When I’m plowing through my to-do list, relatedness goes way down, but my productivity goes way up.” It’s essential to save space to take a “wait and relate” approach with kids. One example might be to see what your kid wants to do before signing them up for a playdate. 

When teaching them manners, realize that one method at a time is what’s healthy and reasonable. Anything more than that can be too overwhelming. A great way to coach your kids through it and relate as they learn is to ask them what signal to give if they break that manner at the dinner table. For example, if working on sitting — your kid might say, “I want you to touch your nose when I don’t do this and as my signal to sit back down.” The next time they do it, they can follow your queue, which teaches them relatedness all along the way. 

Worry love doesn’t help anyone, and you can’t teach too much at once. Focus on your priorities, and if they aren’t partaking in a life-threatening action, replace the perpetual phrase “Be Careful” with “You Got This!”

3) Acknowledge How Competent They Are

Competence is another big one for kids; perfectionism can stall growth here. Help them learn that mistakes are ok. One avenue is through food. After all, “their bodies are built as a self-cleaning oven,” says Polly, and teaching them to listen to their body’s queues is one step that can go a long way in their way of feeling competent. Acknowledge when they are getting in their “grow foods,” and when it comes to dessert, consider creating a rule of letting them decide at which meal they have it and ensuring it’s the size of their palm can be key, teaches Polly.

Some words of encouragement around food might be: 

  • You’re the expert on what your body likes and doesn’t like
  • Get a healthy snack food (i.e., take off your service hat for a bit)
  • Your body knows what it needs and if it’s had enough food

Polly says what’s available to them in the house makes a big difference. This enables them to follow their body’s signals and build more confidence. Including them in packing their lunch is also a big one.

Sleeping is also when anxious seeds get planted and get in the way of a kid’s competence. Whether it’s a settled comment around the following day or being too short and frustrated with your kid — it can lead to anxious sleepers. Have boundaries like “I’ll come in two times to check on you and get what you need, and after that, my mom hat is going off.” Give yourself time, too. Teach them that their body knows when to let go and that everyone is safe in their home.

Keeping on the same page with your spouse or partner on teaching strong self-determination can make all the difference. If one parent is frustrated, give them the space to disconnect while you step in and continue practicing these skills. Self-determination skills are “one evidence-based predictor of post-school employment, education, and independent living success.” 

If you need a refresher on all things parenting, learn more about The Lab Method and Polly’s tips on parenting here.