When I first became pregnant, I bought an entire library of parenting books, certain one of them would contain the secret to becoming a perfect mother. Every night I’d look at them on my nightstand, then roll over and go to sleep without reading a word. The problem was I felt overwhelmed by the breadth of options when it came to parenting styles and theories. I mean, how was I supposed to know which one was the right one?
Eventually I figured out there’s no one right way to parent, and through trial and error I’ve identified what works for me and my family. Still, there are moments when I see a social media post or a headline about a parenting style I’ve never heard of and panic—what if I’ve been doing it wrong all these years?!
This happened to me most recently with “autonomy-supportive parenting,” a parenting theory that’s been around for a while but which lately has made a strong showing in my social media and news algorithms.
What is autonomy-supportive parenting?
It’s the idea that parents should focus on raising kids who are self-aware and have a sense of agency over their lives—in other words, kids who know themselves and are able to make independent decisions. I’ve come to think of it as the middle ground between authoritarian parenting, where mom and dad make all the decisions, and permissive parenting, where kids have most of the control.
With autonomy-supportive parenting, children are supported to make their own decisions and deal with the outcomes without being overly protected. For example, a toddler might be encouraged to help get her own snack from a low shelf or allowed to brush her own teeth. (Though if my toddler is anything to go by, this should definitely be followed by a grown-up brushing!) And an older child might be given a list of chores around the house but also have the ability to decide when they do those chores.
At first glance, trying to instill self-awareness and agency in your kids might seem like a tall order, and a lot of pressure to put on parents—I mean, how many adults do you know who still struggle with self-awareness? But, broken down, it starts to feel more doable.
What are the benefits?
Children raised with autonomy-supportive parenting report greater overall life satisfaction, fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, better performance in school and higher self-esteem. This is great, but here’s the really good stuff: there are benefits for parents, too!
In an age where parental burnout is on the rise, parents who practice autonomy-supportive parenting report being less stressed, having a greater ability to fulfill their own needs, and a stronger overall sense of well-being. This makes sense to me, as I generally feel a lot more relaxed on the days I manage not to hover over my kids and monitor their every move.
Less intensive parenting can also enhance the parent-child relationship. Letting go of some control can mean fewer conflicts with our kids. This can be as simple as letting kids choose what to wear each morning, or as major as dialing back on how you monitor their devices once they’ve proved responsible and trustworthy.
Are there any drawbacks?
Letting go of control can be hard. And the biggest thing that undermines autonomy-supportive parenting is anxiety, which can lead to controlling behavior. Believe me, I know. For me, my anxiety usually comes from a place of genuinely wanting the best for my kids, but I end up going about it in a rigid, overprotective way. As parents, it’s so hard to watch our children experience discomfort or failure if that’s where their decisions lead. And yet, letting them learn from low-stakes experiences with negative emotions is important to their development.
How to practice autonomy-supportive parenting
It’s important to note that autonomy-supportive parenting isn’t for everyone. Particularly for kids who struggle with executive functioning—especially those with ADHD, autism, and other neurodivergent conditions—it may not be appropriate or it may look very different. But, if autonomy-supportive parenting does feel right to you, here are a few ways to get started.
Show unconditional love.
Unconditional love is an important ingredient for kids to develop confidence in their abilities. With autonomy-supportive parenting, we’re going to have to watch our kids mess up from time to time. But showing kids they’re loved no matter their mistakes creates a safe space for them to learn from the experience and try again.
Let kids make age-appropriate choices.
Especially with small children, this doesn’t include things that involve health and safety, like holding hands crossing the street or when to go to bed so that they’re not tired the next day. But as kids get older, they can tolerate more discomfort and can be given more leeway to choose how they want to tackle a specific homework assignment or spend time with friends. And which choices your kids get to make all depends on them—ultimately you know your kids best.
Support them in feeling competent and valued.
For younger children this can mean letting them “help” with household chores, even if it means things take longer, and letting them know you value their contributions. Older children, on the other hand, might participate in a family meeting where everyone gets to choose their chores for the week, helping them to see themselves as an integral part of running the household.
Use non-directive language.
Instead of telling your child what to do or how to do it, use phrases that encourage exploration and discovery. For example, instead of saying, “Put your toys away,” say, “It looks like there are a lot of toys out. How do you think we could clean up?”
Ultimately, the goal of autonomy-supportive parenting isn’t to create miniature adults, but to raise children who are confident and competent when it comes to making their own decisions. These are foundational skills when it comes to being able to live a fulfilling life. And as parents, what more do we really want for our kids than that?