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Parenting

This Parenting Style Is Proven to Build Independence

Research shows supporting kids' autonomy promotes mental health and good grades.

Key points

  • When parents use a parenting style called "parental autonomy support," their kids have better mental health outcomes and are more likely to do well in school.
  • This parenting styles involves allowing kids to make their own choices and contributions, within boundaries.
Odua Images/Adobe Stock
Source: Odua Images/Adobe Stock

As a parent, it can be useful to understand which parenting style comes naturally to you, as well as the pros and cons of each style. But there is one parenting style you may not have heard of, one that researchers have found supports psychological health, academic achievement, and positive attitudes toward school.

The style is called "parental autonomy support," and—not surprisingly—its main focus is to encourage kids to develop independence in age-appropriate ways and within boundaries. The idea is to help kids feel comfortable being themselves and have confidence in their abilities.

A systematic review published in 2015 found that children parented in this way performed consistently and significantly better in school, had higher levels of self-esteem, and were more likely to be self-motivated. They also had better overall psychological health.

A more recent study, published in January in the journal Child Development, found that parental autonomy support helped families to fare better than others during the initial COVID-19 shutdowns.

The study authors followed nearly 500 families living in Germany during the first three weeks of shutdowns in the spring of 2020. Participating parents filled out questionnaires at the beginning and end of the three weeks and wrote daily journal entries about family life at home.

Parents who practiced parental autonomy support reported higher levels of well-being for their children during the shutdown. In addition, parents who used this strategy were less likely to report feeling frustrated and more likely to report that their own needs were fulfilled on a daily basis. Overall, this parenting style was associated with a positive emotional climate in the family.

Putting parental autonomy support into action

This all sounds great, right? But how do parents implement this parenting style?

First, it begins with unconditional love. Children must know their parents will love them even when they make mistakes. This gives them the confidence to make independent decisions, knowing their parents will love them no matter what.

Next, it is important to give children age-appropriate choices to practice their decision-making. For a toddler, this may mean choosing one of three books to read at bedtime. As children get older, they can pick out their clothes or choose what to pack for lunch.

It’s also important to acknowledge a child’s feelings when the choice they would like is not possible. For example, “I know you really wanted to pick out strawberries from the grocery store for your school lunch, but they are out. I’m sorry you are disappointed. Would you like grapes or blueberries instead?”

Parental autonomy support also involves setting rules and boundaries for children. Adolescents and preteens can start contributing to these rules. You can ask a preteen, “When I ask you to do your homework, and you don’t listen the first time, what should we do next?”

Finally, children should feel like they are contributing to the family in a meaningful way. For the smallest children, this can mean passing out napkins at the dinner table or putting toys in a bin after playtime. Let young children help with tasks, even when their “help” isn’t really helpful. As children get older, make sure they have age-appropriate chores around the house. And let them help with the fun stuff too, such as planning a party or outing.

The take-home message:

Research shows that parental autonomy support builds psychological health and promotes academic achievement among kids. Some research also shows it leads to less frustration among parents and promotes family cohesion.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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