How to raise children who make good choices (even when we are not around!)

Laura KIn a recent Incredible Years group, one parent’s main goal was that her kids learned to make the right decisions while she wasn’t there to monitor them. This goal clearly names one of the main purposes of parenting, namely to teach kids to truly internalize how to make good, healthy choices.

As parents, it’s our job to teach our kids not to steal, not to lie, to be kind to others, and to be able to cope with life’s many ups and downs. We want to them to carry our traditions, pass along our wisdom, and teach them to listen to their own hearts.

And we take our jobs very seriously.

So seriously that we may actually be working against ourselves and not actually helping our children learn how to make good choices. Brandishing our love for them and clutching our fear that they could go down the wrong road, we may forget that we won’t always be there with them making sure they eat enough vegetables or standing up for them if someone is crossing their boundaries.

What makes our job as parents challenging is that our kids need to be given the opportunity to learn these skills AND be internally motivated to use them.

The recent article entitled What if Everything You knew About Discipline Was Wrong? considers what is really working in schools to change the behavior of challenging children. The article suggests that behavioral techniques, such as punishment and rewards “sacrifice long term goals (student behavior improving for good) for short term gain—momentary peace in the classroom.” Basically, researchers are showing that the more teachers try to control kids’ behavior, the less likely they are to learn the lifelong skill of self-control. Not only this, but by trying to control kids, both teachers and parents may weaken their self-esteem and actually encourage more negative behaviors.

Research has identified a major tool in helping kids develop their self-control and to be motivated to make good choices. They call this tool ‘parental autonomy support’. Autonomy support means that parents give the opportunity to be in control of their own actions and be present to support them. In contrast to using guilt, using parental anger or disappointment, or using punishment to control kids’ behavior, autonomy support involves taking the time to talk to children, explaining the way you think they should behave, and seeking to understand their perspective. Read more about autonomy support by clicking here.

Parents who want to increase their parental autonomy support need to first control their anxiety and believe that children are naturally able to develop into good decision makers.

The next step is to add these four ingredients:
1. Provide explanation for behavioral requests.
2. Recognize and respect the feelings and viewpoint of the child.
3. Offer choices and encourage initiative.
4. Minimize controlling techniques.

So this is all very interesting, but how do we apply these ideas in real life? I found an opportunity to practice these steps yesterday when my 3½ year old, Rowan, was in a supremely cranky mood. After getting over the fact that I used the “wrong” plate at breakfast, he was then really upset by my plan to take our dog on a walk. Remembering the importance for autonomy support, I asked him how he thought our dog Rosie felt. He said that she wanted to get outside. I said, “Well Rosie wants to get outside, but you really want to stay here. I wonder how we can find a solution?” Rowan said “Maybe we can play and read books and then go later?” I replied, “What an interesting solution! How about 1 book and 5 minutes of play and then we take Rosie out?” He agreed (thankfully)! Though I lost 10 extra minutes of the morning, I gained cooperation and helped him to build his problem-solving muscles.

In our Incredible Years class, we acknowledge that it is important to hold limits with kindness and we know that not every scenario will unfold in such a tidy way.
It is good to know however, that research supports the idea that by taking the time to encourage our kids to find their own solutions, with our support, we can help them to become more honest, kind, and able to make good decisions, even when we are not there!


Laura Kollman is a Licensed Professional Counselor and co-leads the Incredible Years Parenting Program with Becki Woolf. The Incredible Years Programs is a free 16 week class for all parents, especially those who are having trouble with their kids behavior..So basically all parents.  We provide dinner and child-care at no cost. Parents who have attended previous groups report having stronger relationships with their kids and feeling calmer at home, in addition to having fewer behavioral challenges. If you are interested in reading more about our Incredible Years or would like to enroll in our Fall series starting in September, click here.

i Lewis, K.R. (2015, July 30) What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?. Retrieved from
ii IBID, Page 2.
iii Joussemet, M., Landry, R. & Koestner. R. (2008). A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on Parenting. Canadian Psychology ,49, No. 3, 194 –200.
iv IBID, page 195.

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