Kids these days are out of control.
It’s the universal standard line about the state of our nation’s youth in many of our papers, from our radio talk-back hosts, and commentators of all stripes and persuasions.
The remedy the self-proclaimed experts proscribe? “These kids need someone to pull them into line. We need to make them pull their heads in. If parents weren’t such pushovers these days, none of this would be happening.”
In short, the talking heads and opinion-makers and shakers think that we need more control. Kids are out of control because their parents don’t come down hard enough on them. Even respected experts in the field mistakenly concur. They are wrong.
Human beings, including children and youth, thrive when they have autonomy. When the influential adults in their lives provide them with autonomy support, research shows that positive consequences ensue.
This does not mean that the kids should be let off the leash and allowed full independence. Rather, autonomy support means that their parents spend time working with them on establishing appropriate ways to behave in ways that suit the child but also work within appropriate boundaries within our families and society.
The problem with control
The opposite of autonomy is control. For over four decades, research (that is often ignored) has demonstrated that children who experience high levels of control from their parents are more likely to suffer from childhood anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and lower self-esteem. Such difficult behaviours rarely make the news or see us tut-tutting about “kids these days.” However, more recent research also indicates that children of controlling parents are at risk of ‘externalising’ problems, such as opposition, defiance, emotional self-regulation, and anti-social behaviour.
Do we stop controlling our kids?
Let anyone think I am advocating permissiveness, let me be clear that I am not. Research shows outcomes from permissive parenting can be similarly destructive. This can seem confusing. We’re told that we need to avoid controlling our children, but we can’t leave them to their own devices. What alternative do we have?
The best, most cutting-edge research indicates that parents who can foster autonomy-support achieve the most successful parenting outcomes. As the outspoken researcher Alfie Kohn describes, this means that rather than doing things to our children, we work with them. Autonomy support means we appeal to our children’s better natures. We maintain a warm relationship, explain our expectations, understand their perspectives, and work together on mutually agreeable solutions. If they rebel, we don’t use our power to control and disempower them (which only promotes resentment, disengagement, and estrangement), but instead we identify the needs they have that are not being met, clarify boundaries and expectations, and continue to work on solutions that are mutually agreeable.
Those who suggest this is a weak, namby-pamby approach (not a scientific term) either misconstrue autonomy support as permissiveness (which it is not), or ignore the evidence that indicates an autonomy-supportive parenting style promotes internalised (or self) regulation, positive classroom adjustment, better social adjustment, and higher wellbeing.
More control is not the answer. Most children are already over-controlled, and they rebel. The control allows only external regulation and pushes unwanted behaviour underground. It will resurface later, often in uglier ways. Controlling parenting is a risk factor for externalising and internalising psychological and societal problems. A focus on less control but more support and guidance is a subtle but important shift. This approach brings increased wellbeing, improved relationship quality and trust, heightened influence from parents (who ironically use power less), and more pro-social behaviour.
It is a challenge to help parents understand the ill-effects of controlling parenting, while seeking to help those children adopt pro-social behaviours while respecting, encouraging and supporting children’s autonomy while maintaining a positive parent-child relationship. Yet this is the task before parents, many of whom are overwhelmed and struggling.
As a society we demand that those who teach our children in schools are appropriately qualified. Yet the most powerful environmental influence on children are parents. Parents have more responsibility for children’s mental health, wellbeing and engagement – and reducing the risks of violent, destructive, behaviour – than anyone. Yet the thought of universal training is not even a talking point in most circles of influence.
We rely on social services, police, schools, and others to provide a safety net when things go wrong. But most often, things are going wrong in the family home. Helping all parents learn and develop the skills to parent their children well through providing structure and supporting their autonomy is a critical first step that must be at the forefront of government policy as we seek to make society safer, and keep our children engaged, well adjusted and happy. The longer we choose not to invest in teaching parents both the how and the heart of parenting, the more their children and society pays.
Read more about autonomy-supportive parenting in Chapter 2 of my book