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Three Ways Parents Kill Their Kids' Independence

Welcome to part two of the Parenting Mistakes You Didn't Know You Were Making Common Ways We undermine our kids' Success.

What would you do in this situation?

You signed your child up for the school soccer team. You’re excited because you love soccer, the exercise will be good for them, and learning to work in a team will build cooperation, acceptance, and grit.

After just a few practices, you start to connect with the other parents and finally feel the potential for those adult friendships you’ve been longing for. You notice your kid doesn’t really give it their all, and about 4 weeks in they tell you they don’t want to go anymore.

What do you do?

At the end of this article, I’ll invite you to answer this question. But first, let’s talk about needs.

You have needs. I have needs. Kids have needs. And guess what? They are all the same needs.

In addition to physical safety, we have 3 psychological needs.

Over the last 50 years, hundreds of researchers have been studying these needs from all angles, and their findings transcend culture, religion, and age, and apply to every life context, such as school, work, sports, and relationships.

The Three Psychological Needs

  • Connection - the feeling of belonging, loving, and being loved

  • Autonomy - the belief that we make the decisions that govern our own lives

  • Mastery - the experience of getting better and better at something

Together they create a sense of psychological safety, confidence, independence, and healthy relationships.

When all of these needs are met, we (and our children) are automatically motivated to explore, learn, and create.

If any of these needs goes unmet, our energies shift to doing whatever we can to meet that need, whether or not it seems rational or healthy. When a child cannot get any one of these needs met, or worse, has to sacrifice one need to get the other, it can damage their innate motivation and self-confidence and directly affect their behavior and relationships.

Common ways adults undermine kids’ core needs

Unfortunately, many parenting and social norms actively undermine these needs, and having to trade one for the other is super common.

In this 3 part series, I share common ways adults undermine kids’ needs.

Last week I talked about Mastery.

Today I’m going to talk about Autonomy.

But first, I want you to know that I have made most of these mistakes myself, even after I knew not to. Sometimes, it went so against how I was raised I just didn’t trust it, and other times even though I wanted to, it just felt impossible to stop.

If you're interested in learning more about my journey, visit our website. The link is below.

Wherever you are on this journey, and whatever mistakes you make along the way, I want to thank you for being here. It’s often how we come back from these mistakes that teach our kids the most, and the fact that you are here already says a lot about you.


Today, I'm talking about ‘autonomy’.

Autonomy is the experience of being the cause of the outcomes in our own lives (versus being at the effect of others deciding our outcomes for us).

It means we are the author of our own story. We get to make the choices that determine our own destiny.

Autonomy gives us agency, independence, confidence, and a sense of freedom.

When we have autonomy, we feel empowered to make our own choices.

We have healthy relationships with authority.

We can set and maintain healthy boundaries with others.

On the other hand, lack of autonomy casts our kids as victims, feeling like they ‘have to’ do things they don’t want to and powerless to change their own situation. Lack of autonomy can lead to a lack of motivation, poor boundaries, victim mentality, resentment, and anger toward authority figures. Autonomy is the one I see parents struggle with the most. And it’s probably because it’s the most undermined need in our current culture.

Society, by definition, confines us to a set of rules and agreements. And as a whole, we all do better with them in place.

But, like everything, too much of a good thing is just that —too much.

Rules for rules' sake (like, ‘do it because I said so’) can quickly devolve into oppressive structures that shut down our expression, self-connection, and our innate desire to take care of ourselves.

It’s the trickiest one to apply because it requires us to dig deep, reflect and balance allowing our kids to be and do differently than we expect while still respecting the laws of society, their impact on others, and keeping them safe—all at the same.

Autonomy is a dance!

To make it even harder, what this looks like in action is constantly changing as our kids move through different stages of development.

Autonomy at 6 looks really different than autonomy at 16 and with each stage the stakes get higher and the risks more frightening.

Supporting healthy autonomy demands constant consideration, communication, and openness as we challenge our own assumptions and expectations, and consider the deeper WHY behind every rule.

It also means getting uncomfortable as we go against the rules and expectations of our peers and parents (for example, I didn’t force my kids to bathe unless there was a compelling reason like poison oak or poo—not something most parents I know could imagine.)

Common ways I see adults undermining Autonomy in their kids


Autonomy Killer #1: Forcing your child to share.

If the thing you want them to share is yours, cool. If it’s theirs, like a bag of chips or a toy, it’s their call.

Chances are you want your kid to share either because you want other kids to like them or because you want other parents to think well of you and your child.

But developmentally, this is something they need to come to on their own. From a very early age, your kid is just figuring out that they are separate from you, and then learning how to get what they want in the world.

Many kids have an innate desire to share and many don’t. There’s no wrong or right here. Sooner or later, in their own time, they will figure out that sharing gets them things they can’t get any other way. But if you force them to share too early, it can actually slow down this process or worse lead to things like resentment and being secretive about what they have.

Instead of telling your child to share, model sharing yourself, and when they are at an age where they can understand, you can let them know that sharing often gives a good feeling to other people, but that it’s totally their choice. Here you are simply helping them to connect the dots without taking away their ability to choose.

Autonomy Killer #2: Forcing your child to hug, kiss, or be physically close to anyone.

I know, grandma might get offended when your kid doesn’t want to hug or sit on her lap, but everytime we ask our kids to give up their choice about what they do with their bodies and with whom, we are reinforcing messages that our bodies don’t belong to them. We are telling our kids not to trust or act on their real feelings.

If they don’t want to give or receive physical affection, you can help by backing them up and giving them the language to say ‘no’ with authority and grace.

Autonomy Killer #3: Forcing your child to do anything that doesn’t directly impact someone’s safety or the law.

This one flies in the face of all social norms and includes all the common things everyone else around you is telling their kids to do—sports teams, homework, hairstyle, clothes, etc.

Yes I know, teamwork is a valuable skill to learn, and it’s true that the grades your child gets in high school will have an impact on their college options down the road, but seriously, if this is causing a big reaction in you, it’s time to take a breath and a big step back and recognize that just as your life belongs to you, not your teachers, not your parents, your child’s life is also their own.

There are a lot of amazing ways a person can live a life. The most valuable contribution your child will ever make is living within their own personal zone of genius. And that just isn’t always sports or academics.

As a parent, the best thing you can do is teach your kids how to think through decisions, how to look at the consequences of their actions (mostly by living it themselves), and how to understand cause and effect so that they can link up how what they do and don’t do today can impact what they can and can’t do tomorrow.

Let’s take homework for a minute. I personally didn’t pursue a master's degree because I was so sick of homework. I couldn’t bear it another day.

When I learned that there is absolutely no evidence that homework has any benefit whatsoever, it emboldened me to stand my ground with my own kids’ teachers and tell them homework was strictly voluntary.

They were surprisingly fine with it. I had always expected to talk with my daughter about the connection between homework, grades, and college by middle school but in the 5th grade, she just decided it was important to her and started doing it on her own. Now, I offer her supportive reminders because I know it’s important to her, and I do require her to finish by 9 pm so that she can get to sleep on time, but otherwise, I’m hands-off.

I don’t know if my son will choose this as she did—he’s very different, but I’m ok if he gets terrible grades, so long as he has thought through what he wants, understands the connection between things, and is acting from his own place of truth.

All that said, there are going to be things that your kids don’t want to do that you are still going to have to insist on. Like going to school at all. Let’s be real, most kids don’t enjoy it. But, it’s the law and as a whole, it’s important for the society we choose to be a part of.

Unless you want to homeschool, I recommend being real, and acknowledging the truth of their experience while letting them know that we are choosing to be in a country that believes education makes us better as a whole.

Then there are those things that impact YOU - like messes in common spaces.

If you find yourself cleaning up after your kids and don’t like it, then you can make it clear that a condition of spending time in the space is that they do their part to keep it up.

My kids can keep their rooms as messy as they like, but if they want me to come in and put away laundry, I need to be able to move through the space. If they want their room cleaned on cleaning day, they need to make it ready. That’s their choice to make.

So let’s go back to that scenario:

You sign your child up for the school soccer team and after 4 weeks they don’t want to go anymore.

What would you do?

Let me know in the comments.

Chances are, you may find some items on this list anywhere from surprising to challenging. If so, you are in good company.

Which ones impacted you most and how?

And please put in the comments anything you would like to understand better, challenge, support, or are unsure how to apply to your own situation.

Next week, I'll be sharing two common ways that we hurt our kids and our relationships. See you next week.

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