- Parenting during the pandemic has been extremely stressful for many parents.
- A recent study found that parents who gave their children more autonomy showed improved family well-being during the pandemic.
- This study suggests that parents should strive to give their children more autonomy during stressful times.
Parenting during the pandemic has been challenging to say the least. Yet, as we approach 1 ½ years since the pandemic began, research is emerging that can help us to understand which parenting practice during the pandemic helped families to flourish, even under these difficult conditions.
A recent study (which will be published later this year in the journal Child Development) found that giving children more autonomy (that is, freedom to make their own choices) was associated with improved well-being for parents, children, and the family as a whole during the pandemic. Specifically, parents who gave their children more autonomy reported that their children were doing better emotionally, their own needs were being fulfilled to a greater extent, and that their family was more emotionally bonded. In particular, this study found that parenting involving “choice within certain limits” seemed to be optimal during this stressful time.
This study included 496 school-age children (aged 6 to 19 years) in Germany from March to April of 2020. Parents included in this study reported on their parenting practices every day over the course of several weeks.
There is so much pressure on parents right now to be responsive, engaged, and sensitive with our children, but this study suggests that parents may need to step back occasionally. In other words, allowing your children the freedom to make choices when possible is likely to benefit both children and parents during a stressful period.
Many of us have adopted parenting practices during the pandemic that we intend to keep even as we move out of the pandemic, whether it is increased patience, gratitude, or autonomy. So how can we learn from the pandemic and allow our children more autonomy going forward?
- Give your children choices whenever possible (for example, “Would you rather wear your blue sweater or your green sweater?” “Do you want oatmeal or eggs for breakfast?” or “Should we play with trains or trucks first?”).
- Allow your children to make mistakes (for example, allow them to figure out on their own that their block tower needs a stable base or it will fall over, or avoid reminding older children to take their homework to school). Talk to your children about how mistakes are important for learning (I usually tell my children a story about a time I made a mistake and positive consequences that followed from this mistake).
- Let your child experience the “natural consequences” of their choices (for example, if they choose not wear a coat, allow them to be cold, or if they do not clean up their room they will have difficulty finding toys).
- Avoid immediately “fixing” any negative feelings. Give your children time to process their feelings and engage in problem-solving with them once they are calm.
- During play, avoid instruction, correction, or “quizzing” your children with questions unless necessary. Avoid frequently redirecting your child’s attention or reassuring your child if play does not go as planned.
- Do not automatically “fix” your children’s problems (for example, listen to your children’s problems and ask them how they would fix it, or ask your children how they might compromise in a sibling conflict rather than resolving it for them). Don’t jump in to help them with a difficult task. Rather, allow them to struggle and figure it out on their own whenever possible!
Neubauer, A. B., Schmidt, A., Kramer, A. C., & Schmiedek, F. (2021). A Little Autonomy Support Goes a Long Way: Daily Autonomy‐Supportive Parenting, Child Well‐Being, Parental Need Fulfillment, and Change in Child, Family, and Parent Adjustment Across the Adaptation to the COVID‐19 Pandemic. Child Development.