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The Second Leg to Our Parenting Stool: Autonomy

‘I love you too much to fight with you about your homework’

These are the words authors Ned Johnson and William Strixrud invite parents to say to their child.  It’s part of a strategy  to raise  Self-driven Children  by moving away from parent as enforcer to parent as consultant.  

Why should we give up managing our children’s lives?

Johnson and Stixrud say 

“You can’t make your kids do something against their will.

You can’t make your kids want something they don’t want

You can’t make your kids not want what they want.

It’s ok, at least right now, for them to want what they want and not want what they don’t.”

What if all the energy you spend every day to ‘make your child’ meet all his responsibilities is driving  him further from being a self-directed, mature adult who knows himself and works toward good outcomes for his life?

The research shows a growing generation of anxious young people, struggling to ‘adult’ and often choosing not to. 

You and I aren’t aiming for a  ‘good’ kid at 8 .  We want to raise a self-aware, thriving 40 year old doing meaningful work with good, healthy lifelong relationships . 

We want Self-Driven Children who will become self-driven adults.  

But don’t good parents ‘stay on top of their kids’ and ‘make things happen’?

It turns out that “good parents” gradually withdraw control in managing their children’s lives 

They choose to believe children…

1. Are experts on their own lives

2. Have good brains in their heads

3. Want their own lives to work 

 They stop saying ‘because I said so’ and start saying ‘it’s your call’.  

They let their children make decisions,  lots of them, within safe boundaries and lovingly informed by their wisdom. 

 “Kids need responsibility more than they deserve it”.  A teenager struggling to meet obligations without a sense of autonomy  over her actions will not grow in her ability to face them when you are the one taking responsibility (reminding, nagging, rewarding or punishing). Her brain needs the  practice of taking responsibility and facing the consequences of her decisions for her to grow her ability to do that well.  Only when arriving at school without the right notebooks becomes her problem can she be the one solving it.  

Does such advice apply to Wonderfully Wired parents?

You and I  have kids in systems not designed to unlock their brilliant brains nor adequately equipped to support their challenges. We dream of a world where a team of trained professionals help our children thrive and (while they are at it) offer us the support we need to parent them well. In such a world we can imagine being the loving supporting parent that says:   “It’s your call” and trusts that our kids will find their way to success.

Instead,  we are OFTEN left standing with the steering wheel in hand feeling alone and RESPONSIBLE for the outcome of our Wonderfully Wired child’s life.  

 Of course we are enforcers!  If we don’t enforce nothing happens!

When our kid  is in trouble at school, we think it is our job to protect him from such trouble (either by coming down hard on him or by coming down hard on  the teacher).

If our kid is late and disorganized,  we think it is our job to nag him into compliance,  EVERY MORNING. (How’s that going for you?).

If our kid  is emotionally intense and lonely, and we think it’s up to us to find him a friend and make him keep that friend.

Our kids might just need a sense of autonomy even more than neurotypical students. 

 Williams and Stixrud tell stories of what a sense of control does for a child facing more challenges than others.   Kids with learning and social challenges need remedial help, but a child who  feels that the ‘help’ is enforced,  “resists that which is even helpful to them to gain a sense of control”.  

When children feel coerced they often get angry and blame the tutor, you the parent, the teacher or anyone else for the difficulty they face. 

The result only damages relationships that are  the critical first leg in our parenting stool:  connection.  

It feels more risky and  more dangerous for us. But we must relinquish control too.

Why this was (ok is)  hard for me

Is it  ok for me to be personal for a moment?

I used to be very bound by a fear of being irresponsible.  A sense of being ‘found out’ of having not made enough of an effort is the shadow I return to under stress and pressure.   

As a young mother I once walked  home from a playdate and managed to drop my cell phone and shatter the screen- an easy enough thing to happen to a mom with a toddler in a pram, a baby in the arms and a 4 year old on a tricycle.   I showered in shame all the way home:  I should never have owned  an iPhone in the first place,  I was never going to be able to take care of it, I should have known I’d break it sooner rather than later.  I’m simply not responsible enough.

  I had to get those kids to nap, and sit myself down for a talk. I drew a line down the middle of a page and wrote the lie I was believing on the left of the line and the corresponding truth on the right.  One truth to combat each lie.

These lies still surface,  much less frequently now, but I must draw it if I am to relinquish control and become a parent consultant, rather than an enforcer.  

I must choose not to   feel that I’m responsible for my son’s  challenges or that it is my neglect or shirking of duty that got us here.  I must not buy the lie that as a parent it is my responsibility to make a success of his life or that he is somehow an extension of me and my willingness to work and see things through.   

“The real challenge”, Johnson and Stixrud say “ is to raise a child capable of acting in his own interest”. 

All my efforts,  and yours, to help our children will only fall  short when we take back the reins of their lives.  Of course you and  I can get short term results! But short term results are really at their long term expense. 

My parent coaching  doesn’t work when I believe I’m  the ‘last hope’ for Judah (or Juliette or Sophia). It only works when I have faith that they will rise to the challenge of making the lives they want for himself.  

So say it after me:  ‘I love you too much to fight with you about your homework.’

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