Parenting is at once the most absolute challenging and rewarding role in life.
Nothing tops the experience of watching your child play an instrument, learn a skill, or listen to her giggle with friends. When someone tells me how kind she was or compliments her to me I know in that moment what it feels like to win a Nobel Peace Prize. I sit at dinner tables and listen to her launch a theory on reptilian evolution and I am impressed with not just the possibility that she might be right but also by her confidence to speak at a table full of adults. The rewards are endless!
Yet on the very same day of having won the Nobel Peace Prize parenting incompetence can flatten me. The disaster of a bedroom, a plate of spaghetti dropped on a lap, or her words that shine a spotlight on my vulnerabilities and weaknesses. The challenge of how to parent eludes me. I feel useless, lost, and completely incompetent.
I have yet to meet a parent who doesn’t share these similar thoughts and feelings. Somehow we all keep going. We muddle through generation after generation. Parenting books at times offer tidbits to support us but mostly they can leave the best of us feeling more incompetent and useless. Friends can share our most miserable moments but at the end of the conversation I am no farther ahead.
Lately, I have found much comfort in an academic psychological theory that when distilled down into common language has proved to be my lifeline. Self Determination Theory by Ryan and Deci (1985) addresses how humanity has three fundamental needs to function in the most optimal way. They are: to feel related to others, to feel competent, and finally, to be autonomous. Furthermore the more as parents we know, understand and believe in these core concepts the better our children do in school, with friends, and in living optimal lives.
The basic idea is that children have an innate propensity to develop and align themselves consistent to societal values and attitudes. They have lots of internal motivation to develop relationships, learn to do things and act independently. As parents we don’t need to exert very much control over them to ensure it happens. All we need to do really is believe in their ability to do it, accept who they are and their uniqueness of their path, support them emotionally, and set up some gentle guidance around expected behaviours.
What it does require if not control is our involvement of time to support them in their desire for autonomy. It is so much easier (and faster) often to step in and just do it for them. But providing the encouragement to believe they can do it and will do it with our support is ideal. This extends to not just the moments of function in the day to day like getting dressed, but also with the bigger life tasks too, like choosing friends, following interests, etc.
Providing the structure of the bare minimum of expectations is also needed. The expectations need to make sense and they need to apply to all people in the household. Things like: we don’t express ourselves by hitting because it is not OK to hurt others, we brush our teeth as part of our health care, taking care of our things involves putting them safely away.
Many things have lots of rewards in and of themselves. It is intrinsically rewarding to learn to play piano if you love music. It can be fun to work on school projects when you are interested in the topic and feel like your teacher is important to you. Learning how to do things for oneself like laundry, cooking, making money, volunteering in your community, are all part of how we know ourselves as individuals and develop mastery of our environments.
However, there are lots of things that in the moment are not as easily achieved, as there is not as much immediate intrinsic reward. Not so fun sometimes to clean your room, do homework you don’t enjoy, or not hit your sibling when they are bugging you. Self Determination theory states that there is an innate drive to internalize these values and attitudes. But in those difficult moments before the internalization process is complete we would rather live in a filthy room, abandon the homework and hit our brother.
As parents we need to believe that internalization will occur in time. It is inevitable. However, right now what is needed to move that process along is to recognize the child’s perspective, offer choices, encourage initiative, and gently reinforce those bare minimum standards. The researchers tell us exerting a lot of control over the child may in fact get the immediate results but will not lead to the internalization of these values. It leaves children feeling depleted of their autonomy and complying only in the situation but not in fact being able to do it on their own.
Thankfully the other night I remembered enough of this theory to hear myself saying “I know you don’t like to brush your teeth, you never have, yet this is one of those things we have to do to stay healthy – you can do it now or you can do it after stories but it is important to do it ….. come on I know you can do this”. Miraculously I didn’t have to get all bossy and mean. After a few seconds of silence, patience and reassuring myself the theory was right, she got up and did it! Thank you Ryan and Deci!!!!