If your house is anything like mine, you may have found yourself knee deep in the throes of threenagerdom – gone are the plain old tantrums of two, which have now been replaced with full sentences, emotional outbursts that defy adult logic, and full-blown attempts at adulting without assistance.
If this is where you are, take heart, because developmentally, this is exactly where your child is supposed to be right now!
Autonomy vs. Shame & Self Doubt
From about 18 months to about 3 years old, children are in the stage known by child-development experts as Autonomy vs. Shame & Self-Doubt. The idea is that the child needs to be able to gain a sense of control over his/her choices and environment in order to be secure and confident, and to develop the ability to act with intention. This prepares the child well for the preschool stage (known as Initiative vs. Guilt) where the child develops teamwork, leadership and a sense of purpose.
For the toddler, the need to feel a sense of control over their world is part of the if/then equation they are learning: If they act in a certain way, then the result will be something that is expected.
Toddlers (like every other age group) will test boundaries again and again to see if the boundaries hold, because they need to have the sense of security that comes with predictability. If this, then that. This gives them the confidence of knowing that their actions can have a predictable effect on their world too. This is also why routines are so important for young children.
Predictability = security.
This is also why it’s so important to be aware of our own hot buttons. Our kids know what they are. There is a reason they push them. They want to see what happens when they push a button that gets a reaction. It’s how they learn to deal with their own triggers!
Autonomy Support and Executive Function
Kids’ brains are wired to absorb new information at lightning speed, and then to figure out what to do with that information in a way that makes sense. One of the big jobs of the brain is to develop something called “Executive Function” (EF) – which allows us as humans to rein ourselves in from what our animal brains want to do. It allows us to delay gratification, self-regulate (control our tempers, emotions and actions), solve problems, focus our attention, and pursue our goals.
What does that have to do with parenting toddlers?
Well, as it turns out, the most effective thing for helping kids develop executive functioning at an early age is to support their autonomy by actually giving them some control.
If we want to get kids to exercise self control, we have to give them the opportunity to use it.
Yup, that’s going to take a lot of patience. Just when our kids are supposed to be developing a sense of self, of control over themselves and their environments, and the ability to exert their independence and say “NO!”. They are expressing a need for autonomy and are a walking contradiction, our best bet to get them to do what we want is to give them some control. Kids develop better executive function when we give them opportunities to exercise control.
A 2015 study on executive function in kids by S.W. Bindman, E.M. Pomerantz and G.I. Roisman found that all other things considered, moms who provided autonomy support in their kids’ first 3 years of life had kids who had better executive functioning as early as the year before kindergarten, and performed better in elementary school than those who used more controlling parenting methods with their young children.
What is autonomy support?
Autonomy support is, in a nutshell, freedom within boundaries.
Autonomy supportive parenting gives the child an age-appropriate level of control over their day to day choices and allows them to take initiative. It allows them to develop an inner compass for the choices they make, and fosters independent thinking.
In their 2017 paper, Julie C. Laurin and Mireille Joussemet describe a study on rule internalization that they completed with a group of kids over time, starting at 2 years of age until 3 1/2 years of age. Rule internalization is the term they used to describe kids complying with what was asked or expected of them using their own internal motivation. The kids were measured in 2 activities: clean up after playtime, and a “don’t touch this really cool thing” rule. The researchers were interested in whether a correlation existed between autonomy-supportive parenting and the kids’ rule internalization – their ability to exercise what we would call self-control.
Kids whose parents used an autonomy-supportive parenting style showed greater ability to internalize and comply willingly with the rules (both now and increasingly over time). Kids whose parents used controlling methods actually worsened over the period of the study in committed compliance and self-control.
Self-control, like any other muscle, is one that needs to be exercised in order to develop and grow.
The big takeaway here for parents is that in order for us to have children who have self-control, we have to give them ample opportunities to practice it. External controls (our wishes and direction) may give them the framework for their compass, but we need to give them freedom within that framework to make good choices.
The 5 Parenting Habits that build self-control
There are 5 key habits parents can practice that support a child’s autonomy and help build the mental and behavioral muscles they need to exercise in order to develop self control.
What steps can we take to help our kids develop autonomy and self-control?
In the rule internalization study, the researchers identified 5 things autonomy-supportive parents used that worked together to help guide kids toward self-motivated compliance:
- Rationale. Providing a reason for the rule or request to help the child understand and internalize its importance.
- Choice provision. Allowing the child to exercise control in some form over the way they would comply with what was being asked of them.
- Suggestion. The respectful manner and language used to ask the child to do something or not to do something.
- Description. Use of non-personal, objective language to call the child’s attention to something that needs to be addressed.
- Singing. Use of a clean up song during clean up activity was common among autonomy-supportive parents.
What doesn’t work?
Threats, sarcasm, criticism, bribes, punishments, coercive language, or use of physical force to obtain compliance (making them do what we are asking them to do) actually make them LESS cooperative, both now and over time.
So, how can we translate these habits and techniques into our everyday parenting?
Remember this: when a child is mastering initiative, learning responsibility and independence, our job is to GUIDE them and give them the right boundaries so they can thrive.
Using the techniques described above, I made an easy to remember acronym: GUIDE.
G: Give a reason.
Explain WHY. Help them under the importance of what we are asking.
This can be as simple as saying, “it’s time to clean up so we can enjoy this room after nap time. Doesn’t it feel good to walk in here and see a clean room? It helps us have more fun when we have space to play in, doesn’t it?”
Help them understand the importance of the thing we are asking them to do. Why does it matter? This helps create agreement and allows them to recognize the need for action.
U: Use gentle, non-controlling language.
Use gentle, non-controlling language to ask or partner with your child in a task, such as “can you please put the toys away?” Or “let’s clean up. I’ll help you!” rather than just the command to “put your toys away.”
Suggest or request the desired behavior or action. Use words like “let’s, why don’t we, it’s time to, or I’ll help you.” By not phrasing it as a command, there is less for the child to push back against. Provide a clear description of the rule, situation or what needs to be done in gentle, non-controlling language (water stays in the tub, there are blocks on the floor by the sofa, I can’t let you hurt your friend).
Using respectful language elicits willing participation, where criticism, controlling language, threats, punishment, bribery and sarcasm have an adverse effect. Controlling language awßΩ may accomplish the short term goal of compliance and obedience, but will not help the child internalize the rules, standards and behaviors we are trying to enforce.
I: Include choices.
Give them a choice of some kind in when or how to comply with the request. “Would you like to put your jacket on first, or your shoes?” The non-negotiable bottom line is maintained, but we can give them a sense of control over how it will get done, which makes it more likely that they will get on board.
Don’t negotiate the bottom line, but offer a choice on how the task is carried out. This employs empathy and respect by giving the child a sense of control over how or when they will do what is asked of them, or over what they will wear or eat, within boundaries you find acceptable. “Do you want to do it by yourself or do you want Mommy to help you?” “Would you like the blue jacket or the gray one?” Or “Would you like to start with the blocks or the cars?”
D: Describe what you see.
Describe your observations in a non-personal way:
“I see a wrapper on the floor.”
“I see 2 blocks in the corner.”
This impersonal description is objective and allows the child to notice what needs Attention, make the connection to what action is needed and take initiative to correct the problem.
When they do make the connection and take action, then we can praise them for being a good problem solver as well!
E: Employ songs.
Sing. Yes, sing! Employ songs that describe the routine, task or activity.
Use of non-personal songs for transitions and activities is instrumental (see what I did there?) in getting kids to really internalize them. It makes sense, right? How much easier is it to remember the words to a song than a book or a verse without a tune?
Putting it into practice
There are going to be days when everything clicks and these steps are easy to implement, and there are going to be days or times when it will feel as though these techniques are backfiring, particularly if these are new concepts for both the parents and the children.
Don’t give up! Falling back on old habits can feel like the easiest thing to do, but I encourage you to keep trying! Like any muscle, the self-control muscle is going to need to be exercised in order to become healthy and function at its best.
The best times to practice these habits are when everyone is rested, fed and well-regulated.
Playtime Cleanup Exercise
1. Engage fully in play.
Try sitting on the floor with your child and asking if you can play with them (you may be surprised at how enthusiastically they respond!). Engage with them as fully as possible throughout play, letting them direct you. Talk about what they are doing, and ask them what they would like you to do. Sometimes, all they want is for you to be with them.
2. Give clear cues for transition time.
When it’s time to wind things down, give them a signal that playtime will be ending soon and set a timer.
3. Practice the 5 habits:
G: Give a reason. Explain that when playtime is over it will be clean up time. “It’s important to clean up when we are finished playing so we can find all of the toys later. Doesn’t it feel good to play in a nice, clean playroom?”
U: Use gentle, non-controlling language. When the timer goes off, invite them to help you clean up.
I: Include choices. Try to offer some sort of choice (“would you like mommy to help you pick up the blocks or do you want to do it yourself?” works well for us!)
D: Describe what you see. (“Oh! I see a puzzle piece under the chair.”)
E: Employ a song. Use a clean up song if you know one. We use the Cocomelon version at our house, though I have to say it gets stuck in our heads for hours!
Practice makes progress
As these 5 habits get more and more exercise, they will become more natural and intuitive. And, they will become more effective as your child develops their own inner compass and begins to take initiative. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it.