We’re always telling kids to “grow up,” but we don’t give them any of the agency or freedoms that go along with the demand. They are given rules, instruction, and direction, but are rarely given choice or freedom. A lack of choice deters children and teenagers from feeling and displaying agency. A lack of practiced choice and freedom means that kids begin to doubt their efficacy and capabilities and are, therefore, less likely to be motivated. If a child believes he/she cannot succeed, he/she is likely not to succeed.
What we often don’t realize is that while we provide for our children, we aren’t always teaching them to be self-motivated. We don’t allow them to create their own expectations, raise them to be afraid of failing or getting hurt, and often act as their personal parachutes. What we don’t provide them with, however, is a sense of agency or autonomy.
What Are Agency and Autonomy?
Agency isn’t a word that’s easy to add into our parenting vocabularies. If a child expresses agency, they express the power to think for oneself and to be in charge of shaping one’s own experiences.
It is the ability to express individual power, thoughts, and actions. It’s what we oftentimes withhold from our children in an effort to protect them. Similarly, autonomy is the ability to self-govern, to independently behave and think, despite the behaviors and thoughts of those around us.
It’s so easy (way too easy, in fact) to strip our children of a sense of agency in their lives. We tell them what the rules are, how they should and should not act, and pave them the one path that will lead them to our views of success. If you think back to being a teenager, to listening to your parents tell you what and how to think, do, and act, you can probably recall not feeling in control of your own goals, and unmotivated to reach the goal they had in mind for you.
How Do We Provide Agency, Without Losing Complete Control?
You’re probably thinking, “Well, I’m not going to let my kids run the show!” And, based on our recent blog post on the teenage brain, you probably shouldn’t.
Instead, think of your child as more of the director of their own lives (he or she gives direction to capture their vision of how they see their lives unfolding) and of yourself as more of the producer (you manage the logistics of how that vision can be brought into a final, successful product). The director has creative control, and the producer guides it. Here are a few ways you can guide your children’s goals and encourage self-motivation:
1. START AT A YOUNG AGE
When you’re playing a game with your child, allow them to choose the game, to make up their own rules or storylines, and to even play the game wrong. You can guide children towards independence and self-direction if you give them room to discover it. Provide them with the opportunity to discover, experiment, and test their abilities… and provide them the room to get it wrong once in a while
2. RESPECT YOUR CHILD’S VOICE
It’s important that your children feel heard and respected. This doesn’t mean their voice should be the only one heard, but it does mean that you should provide your children with respect just as you expect respect from them.
Enter conversations with the assumption that what they have to say is as important as what you have to say. Enter interactions under the assumption that you can learn from them, as much as they can learn from you. Ultimately, don’t interact with your children in a way that requires them to only enter YOUR world. You can enter THEIR world, too—through play, questions, discussions, and genuine interest.
3. ALLOW YOUR CHILDREN TO (RESPECTFULLY) QUESTION YOU
We mentioned that agency is about thinking and acting independently. If we never allow our children to question us, or our rules, then we are squashing their independent thought and inquisition.
If your children feel free to respectfully question you, they will be better equipped to go through life questioning, instead of following. “Because I said so,” is lazy parenting; instead, provide opportunities to explain the why’s and the what’s in a way that teaches the importance and weight of rules.
You may even find that children will question your authority less if you provide them with the opportunity to understand the reasons behind it.
4. ALLOW YOUR CHILDREN TO MAKE MINOR DECISIONS AND CHOICES
Provide your children with the opportunity to choose for themselves. These moments of freedom will result in less pushback on “no choice” decisions (like going to school, or completing chores). Give them creative freedoms in what they wear or how they decorate their room, let them decide what hobbies or interests they would like to follow, and allow them say in some family decisions.
5. INSPIRE LEARNING AND DREAM-FOLLOWING AT HOME
If you want them to develop qualities of leadership, you should let your children express their individual power, thoughts, and actions. It helps if your kids feel as though they are in charge of shaping their own experiences. If your child is motivated to learn the guitar, to paint, to succeed in a sport, or any other hobby or interest, give them the room to invest their time and energy into those things. Engaging in these activities will encourage and strengthen their motivation, patience, and resolve… all of which are qualities that are important to have throughout life.
At 2nd Nature Academy, we encourage our students to question, lead, and help govern our school society. These allowances not only give a sense of freedom, but they are also responsibilities that instill a strong sense of agency. It’s our goal as teachers and administrators to make sure that students feel like true leaders of the student body and active members of their own learning.