One of the challenges in parenting is knowing how to navigate a child’s self-determination, especially if I believe that I know the right decision the child should be making in the first place! Children are people — just a little shorter and perhaps not as skilled as adults — and intrinsically worthy of the respect and consideration we give to our peers.

Holding a rainbow in her hands
"Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes." — Mahatma Gandhi

The self-determination theory looks at how people are motivated to act, both from external factors and those intrinsic motivators that inhabit an individual. Three major components of self-determination are autonomy, competence and relatedness. In understanding these factors, I can guide my children to make a wise decision while at the same time offering them the respect that I would offer a partner, a sibling or a colleague.

“Trust children. Nothing could be more simple — and more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves — and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” — John Holt, How Children Learn

I live alongside four other beings — each so different from the other. They own completely different sets of motivators, are competent to different levels, they understand and relate to their community in different ways, and yet they are all highly driven by the desire to remain self-governing individuals.

When a child is learning the way the world works, they like to ask “why?”. So much of my evolution into a peaceful parent has been triggered by this little word — but only after I stopped to consider a really truthful answer. It is often the key to understanding my own hang-ups and then releasing my children to write their own stories of the world and society we inhabit.

As a parent, how do I navigate four children’s desires for self-determination while still offering the best possible advice for the good of our family unit and the community around us?

I pick my battles.

A child doesn’t want to brush her hair, and as it is part of her body, how can I force her? This is now an easy one for me, but it used to be very difficult to let go of how my girls looked. My ego was tied up in the appearance of my children, for this is how I knew to judge other parents: if a child’s well-groomed, that’s a caring mother.

However, we like to need to instill in our children — early on — a right over their own bodies, and hair-brushing is something that can be invasive, painful and potentially traumatic. How important is it to conform to others’ standards of how children should look? (And if I tele-ported us into a random community in another culture, would those standards even exist?)

Are our materialistic society’s values what I want to demonstrate to my girls from a time before they can even speak properly? Is there another way to demonstrate positive personal-grooming habits that doesn’t rely on what others may or may not think of us?

Many of my children’s demonstrations of self-determination are acceptable. Why do we eat certain foods for breakfast? Why do we use shampoo? Why do we wear pyjamas? Am I just following a cleverly-marketed idea sold to me by those who haven’t ever met my family?

But sometimes a child’s self-determination can get messy, and that’s when I carefully reconsider.

I weigh up my energy to deal with the consequences.

If I believe my child is making a poor decision, can I help them deal with the consequences? A poor choice (a high-energy food at midnight, an electronic toy left in the rain) is a great learning opportunity for a child. If the consequences seem too great (or expensive), I can offer my own personal testimony about what happened when I got my phone wet. If I don’t have a personal story to share — why do I assume the consequences? Perhaps it’s also a learning opportunity for me to let go of a preconceived notion!

If my child gets wet in the rain, she’ll probably turn cold. Do I have the energy to dry her and dress her and hang up the wet items? Depending on the day and the circumstances, the amount of mess and the anticipated clean-up time, my answer to this can vary.

My honesty as a loving communicator lies in sharing with the child that I’m actually the lazy mother who doesn’t want to clean up a mess, and so that’s why I want to restrict her. My children are skilled negotiators and — once they understand my hesitations — can establish a game-plan whereby they can still do what they want … and they promise to deal with the consequences! It’s a win-win for all parties.

This is an example of how a child’s competence can affect their self-determination. My girls often own the same mischievous ideas, and they have learned to work together to combine their skills and strength so it matches something close to my own. Because they’re intrinsically motivated and operating on a natural high from their new freedom, it usually goes to plan. And if they pike on their agreement … well, by observing my children freely enjoying themselves, I am usually recharged and can tackle the clean-up as well.

“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” ? Anne Frank

It’s wonderful to offer new freedoms to my girls — until their freedom affects someone else negatively.

I communicate our responsibility to the community.

In many things, my child is a autonomous unit. She owns her body and is responsible for its care and handling. I intervene when she negatively impacts another. If someone is getting hurt, I protect the victim and — if necessary — isolate the attacker. This is basic, but when the community’s needs are less visible, I need to communicate the missing pieces of information so my child understands the implications of her actions.

In self-determination, one of the basic psychological needs is relatedness — the desire to be interacting and connected with others. My role is to demonstrate social responsibility in the first instance and communicate that with my children so that my girls see that the things I do are benefiting a wider family than just our own. For most children this desire is hard-wired, and in my experience, simply by raising awareness in a child’s mind, the child will freely choose for the good of the community.

What happens when three children receive lice treatment and one refuses? We co-sleep and live in such close quarters that one child’s expression of self-autonomy can negatively impact the others. It’s so hard to refrain from bullying, bribing or threats!

Is it possible to reason with a three-year-old? Yes, in my experience, it is. However, this comes after three years of first talking respectfully with her, allowing her great freedoms and communicating clearly about consequences, feelings, desires and pains. This is the way that it works in my family.

“Raising children with an emphasis on intrinsic rewards is not a technique, a method or a trick to get them to do what the parent wants them to by subtler means, but a way of life, a way of living with children with real respect for their intelligence and for their being.” — Mary Van Doren

Timing is important. A child’s awareness is often tied to their own energy levels. At the end of the night, she may not care if she infects the whole world with lice! But in the morning — after a night of close cuddling — she will likely have a different perspective.

And if she doesn’t? Is there a time to over-rule?

I over-rule self-determination only as a last resort.

It’s painful to have freedoms removed from us. I hate it, and my children hate it. So it’s definitely a last resort. When do I do it?

When someone is getting hurt, I over-rule. If my child is getting hurt or my child is hurting someone else, I stop it. This also extends to emotional hurt — we remove ourselves from communities where the children are bullied.

When a child loses perspective and there’s no time to negotiate, I over-rule. Sometimes it’s a medical emergency, sometimes there are other pressing factors. I know my children, and we share a loving relationship, so — in time, and with the proper perspective — my girls forgive me these dictatorial moves.

When I am weak within myself, I take away my children’s self-determination. This is something that I’m still working on. I hate the remnant dictator (the voices of so many grown-ups that ruled my childhood) that lingers within me. However, as I gain strength and wisdom in lovingly dealing with my children, it happens less.

Always — absolutely always — I strive to deal with my children with respect. They are people right now — just smaller than me — and in the blink of my eye, they’ll be adults and peers. I talk with them now as I’ll talk with them twenty, thirty and forty years from now, and it’s such a privilege to have known them during this time!

“If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.” — John Holt