Fostering Kids’ Autonomy Works

Kids want and need substantial autonomy. When, as parents, we help our children develop self-responsible control over their lives, we make their lives better and our lives easier. Yet the temptation to default to authority (“because I said so”) can be strong.

A regular sort of post on the homeschooling groups I follow runs something like this: “My child just won’t do the work I’ve assigned. He/she keeps fighting me about it, refuses to do it, and acts bored and listless. Help! This is driving me bonkers and I don’t know what to do!”

But think about this from the child’s perspective, and I think the main problem will quickly become apparent. If, as an adult, someone decided what tasks you would do regardless of your interests and buy-in, forced you to do those tasks every day for a set number of hours, and then continually berated you for not doing the job very well, how would you feel and react? My guess is you’d be grumpy and irritated about it. So why are we surprised when kids react that way?

Kids are not ready to go it alone, obviously. They need parents (or comparable caregivers). But they do normally value autonomy—being substantially in control of their own lives to the extent of their considerable abilities, which expand over time. Indeed, our main job as parents is to help our kids develop into autonomous, self-responsible adults who can successfully direct their own lives. We can do that only if we give our kids lots of opportunities to exercise their “autonomy muscles.”

I’m not saying kids don’t need their parents to set boundaries to keep them safe. Obviously they do. Nor am I saying that parents should turn themselves into their kids’ servants, catering to their every momentary whim. In my essay, “Starting Your Homeschooling Journey,” I talk about the need for homeschooling parents to accommodate their own schedules, to teach their kids to struggle through important but difficult tasks for future gain, and to safeguard their children from addictive and other self-harmful behaviors. I’m saying that, within that context, our basic orientation, as parents, should be to give our kids the resources and encouragement to develop their own values, make their own choices, and plot their own course in life, as their fast-developing capacities allow.

My wife’s experiences yesterday with our five-year-old well-illustrate the principle. My wife had the day off, so she took the lead with homeschooling most of the day. She simply asked our son what he wanted to do through the course of the day, and he chose things that were interesting and meaningful to him—and also highly educational. Generally, kids want to learn about the world and how to navigate it.

Our son spent around half an hour working on Core Knowledge worksheets that I’d printed out. The point of these is to facilitate writing practice. My son treated this as an art project, which was fine with me. Then I stepped in and we worked on triangles for around an hour. I didn’t have to push him to do this; I just asked him if he wanted to, and he was happy to do it. We stopped when he got tired of it. Then my wife and son played checkers for around half an hour, which is really good for developing logic and strategy. Then my son participated in a 40-minute online dance class (which totally freed up the adults’ schedules). At various points in the day my wife worked with my son on a balloon experiment out of a science-project book, a shark craft project from a magazine, and a pulley project from a science kit we have. Our child also spent some time working independently with a phonics app and watching science videos. None of this was forced. He wanted to do these things. And he learned a a lot.

Yes, most days my wife has a very-demanding work schedule, and I also have a full if more-flexible schedule, so most work days our son simply has to spend relatively more time with self-directed activities or with lightly supervised social events. Here the point is that children normally are happy to do things that help them develop and that they find interesting. As parents, we can work with that.

I am certainly not saying here that parents’ attitude should be something like, “Go do whatever you want and don’t tell me about it.” I’m promoting active parenting that respects the child’s autonomy, not neglect.

Good parenting, in my view, is neither passive nor authoritarian, but deeply interactive with the child. As parents, we can do two main things to help our children develop into self-responsible adults (in addition to providing basic love and care). We can provide a rich environment filled with learning opportunities tailored to a child’s interests, and we can regularly explain (as appropriate) the long-term benefits of thoughtfully gaining knowledge and skills. In short, we can help both with the opportunities and with the motivation to learn.

What we cannot do is force a child to learn. We cannot yell, berate, embarrass, or punish a child into a genuine love of learning. Depending on the child, it is possible to force a child to grudgingly perform what we might call “acts of school.” It is also possible to encourage a child to perform “acts of school” for the sake of pleasing others. But these sorts of orientations do not manifest a genuine love of learning or reflect development of self-responsibility. Sure, kids performing “school,” whether from fear of punishment or desire for adulation, usually do pick up some real knowledge and skill—but not much. I know this well—as a child I became a master test-taker because I wanted the grades, and then I immediately forgot almost everything I had “learned” soon after the test booklet was shut. Do we want our kids to value learning and their chosen values—or to go through the motions of school? Assuming we want the former, we have to nurture our kids’ autonomy.

I do think it is possible, and often desirable, to get a child’s “buy in” for some particular program. For example, I want to go through Dimensions Math with my son because the program helps build extremely useful skills and knowledge. So far, I haven’t had any problem getting him to sit down and work on this for around twenty minutes to an hour at a time. We work on math most days but not all days. We also do a lot of spontaneous, supplemental math work—for example, this morning my wife worked with our child on measurements while making pancakes for breakfast. I never force my child to sit down and do math. When he’s tired, we quit. I have built in a few modest external motivators; for example, I arranged a scavenger hunt for him after he finished one of the workbooks. But I never want to make the work fundamentally about superficial rewards. Instead, I try to explain how knowing math will help him succeed in various possible life goals. (Right now he wants to be a fossil hunter.) I realize we’re early in the game, but so far the strategy is working very well.

I’ll mention a couple other examples. I am intrigued by Bryan Caplan’s approach to homeschooling. He has even toyed with the idea of starting a small private school for other students. He emphasizes lots of self-directed learning with a heavy emphasis on math. Obviously this would not work well for all students. But, for students who buy in to the system, I think it would work great. Buy-in is the key. If a student does not consciously choose to commit to this routine, it will never work. VanDamme Academy offers a very-rich and very-precise curriculum. But the people who run the school work hard to make the material they teach relevant to their students’ lives, and they hire engaging teachers. The school also is rather expensive. A student who does not buy in to the program simply will not succeed—and few parents will be willing to pay to send a child to a school they actively resist.

Certainly it is okay to insist that children follow through on their reasonable commitments. For example, although most times my child very much wants to go to dance class, a few times we’ve had to remind him that he wanted to sign up for the class and that we paid for him to attend. Yet we also have to allow kids to change their minds sometimes. (The same is true of ourselves.) Someone might seriously think they want to take guitar lessons or learn dance or subject themselves to the rigors of Bryan Caplan’s academy—but then discover that it’s not working out as they’d hoped. If my son truly hated dance class, I’d let him drop out, after first clearly explaining that we’re not keen on wasting money and that he needs to think carefully about his commitments. Yes, part of being a kid is learning to follow through on your commitments. And part of being a kid is trying new things and seeing what takes and what doesn’t. Children need room to explore.

When it comes to learning materials, the approach that often fails is for the parent to decide exactly what the child will learn and when and how the child will learn it. Again, we need only reflect on how we’d react to this approach. Imagine if someone approached you and demanded, “You must learn Subject X at this particular time, using this particular book or resource, and if you don’t I’ll cajole or berate you.” Any self-respecting adult would tell the person to take a flying leap. Different kids have different interests and different learning styles. Our job as homeschooling parents is to help find materials and approaches that work for our kids, not to force our kids into the mold of some particular approach. Again, it’s perfectly fine to suggest a particular learning path to a child and to explain the benefits of it, and if the child buys into it, great. Otherwise, try something else. Butting heads with our kids only makes life miserable all around.

I realize that some children have really challenging experiences and even suffer severe trauma. For some kids, just going to school can be traumatizing, if other children bully them or if adults treat them scornfully. Some children have trouble going through a move or their parents’ divorce. In the worst case, a child suffers abuse and has to adapt to a new home. I concede that such circumstances can bury a child’s natural love of learning and make a child bitter and resentful, at least for a time. But it’s not like trying to force a child to learn will work in these circumstances. That approach probably will fail even more spectacularly with a traumatized child. I don’t have any easy answers here. In some cases professional counseling may be called for. But my general point holds: The aim is to help (re)kindle the child’s natural love of learning and to nurture the child’s engaged pursuit of self-chosen and self-developing values.

For most families, the “problem” of child rebellion can be easily remedied. Don’t give your kids much to rebel against. Let them be basically in charge of their own lives (keeping in mind the caveats discussed earlier). Yes, encourage, explain, nurture—and, above all, ask. Most people want to lead successful, happy, thriving lives filled with meaningful activities. Our job as parents is to help our kids reach what they already probably want at some basic level, to help them successfully grow into self-directing individuals.

Image: Tim Pierce