Want a Better Relationship With Your Kids? Promote Autonomy

A toddler runs while his parent watchesAs any parent who’s spent any time reading parenting books is keenly aware, parenting fads come and go. The “Tiger Mom” of yesterday is today’s villain. From debates over the virtues of crying it out and co-sleeping to the seemingly endless so-called “mommy wars,” parents are inundated with advice about how best to parent. Many of the ongoing debates about how to parent center around how much independence children should have. According to a new study, though, good parenting may be as simple as respecting a child’s autonomy—particularly if you want your kids to view you in a positive light.

Respecting Children’s Autonomy

The research, conducted by University of Minnesota researchers, will be published in the journal Social Development. The study spanned almost 10 years, evaluating over 2,000 mothers and their children. Researchers evaluated the degree to which mothers were directive and controlling during play when their children were 2. Almost 10 years later, when the children entered fifth grade, researchers interviewed mothers about disagreements with their children. These disagreements provided significant insight into how much control mothers attempted to exert over children.

Children whose mothers exhibited relatively low degrees of control were more likely to have negative views of their parents, but children whose parents allowed them more autonomy spoke positively of their mothers. Interestingly, behavioral controls—such as teaching children safety rules like the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street—did not cause children to think negatively of their mothers. Instead, it was psychological control that caused problems. Mothers who are highly psychological controlling attempt not just to control their children’s behavior, but also their thoughts and feelings. These parents are more likely to guilt their children or to attempt to control how they feel or play. 

The study found the same results regardless of gender or ethnicity. Its authors argue that parents often think controlling their children is key to good parenting, when in fact, giving progressively more age-appropriate autonomy might be a better strategy. They also emphasize the importance of negotiating and explaining rules rather than saying, “Because I said so.” The study did not evaluate the role of fathers in control and autonomy.


Children feel most positively about mothers who respect their autonomy. (2015, January 28). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150128093551.htm

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  • Claude

    January 31st, 2015 at 2:05 PM

    I want my children to have the autonomy and independence that they crave but I also want to make sure that they stay safe in everything that they do. How do you maintain and establish that kind of balance?

  • Catherine

    February 2nd, 2015 at 3:47 AM

    Good grief I hope that I never did this to my kids!

  • archer

    February 4th, 2015 at 2:18 PM

    What a fine line that we as parents have to walk, that line where one side is sane and normal, and the other is the all out crazy Tiger mom.
    I know that we all wish safety for our kids, as well as success, but I think that by allowing them to have a little bit more independence can really create in them what most of us are looking for.
    Sometimes it takes them failing to see their mistakes, and this failure can then be what drives them to succeed the next time.

  • Susan

    February 9th, 2015 at 11:21 AM

    My mom and dad controlled every move that I made when I was growing up and it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I finally broke free of some of that. It was actually when I insisted on going away for college and paying my own way. That for me in a nutshell was my ticket to freedom.

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