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Give children more autonomy during the pandemic, says study

Autonomy-based parenting promotes the well-being of children and their parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parenting school-age children as they attend school remotely is a challenge. Lacking normal child support services such as daycare, some parents must do their own jobs from home while also keeping an eye on their children.

A new study finds that allowing children a little more freedom may be the most effective strategy for adults and children alike.

Autonomy-based parenting techniques support positive well-being for parents and their children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We explored whether or not autonomy-supportive parental behavior would facilitate adaptation and better child well-being. We also explored whether such parenting behavior helps to create a positive emotional climate that benefits parents as well as children,” says study co-author Andreas B. Neubauer, of the Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The study found that “autonomy-supportive parenting behavior is positively associated both with better child well-being and higher parental need fulfillment.”

As an added benefit, it also found that while this parenting technique requires care and energy to maintain, it also provided something of a recharging effect for parents.

The study appears in the journal Child Development.

Autonomy-based parenting involves allowing a child to operate independently within reasonable boundaries.

With this parenting technique, the adult communicates a nonjudgmental way to the child that allows them to explore their own strategies and solutions without fear of reprisal.

Therefore, the child gains the opportunity to own their actions and consequences. By removing parental micromanagement, autonomy-based parenting promotes a child’s own feeling of competence.

In the context of the current pandemic, autonomy-based parenting means that a child assumes more responsibility for the quality of their remote schoolwork, much as they would be doing if they were on their own in a pre-pandemic classroom.

At the same time, this technique also returns some much needed time to the working parent.

Through the use of parent questionnaires, the researchers tracked the prevalence and effect of autonomy-based parenting over 3 consecutive weeks during the pandemic — from late March through late April 2020 — in Germany.

In the first phase of the research, 970 parents completed a questionnaire.

For the second phase, 562 of those parents agreed to complete nightly questionnaires over the study period. These afforded each parent a chance, at the end of each day, to recap the days’ parenting experience.

Each questionnaire contained 21 questions. Among these, parents were asked to identify statements that best described the measure of autonomy they allowed that day, including:

  • “As far as possible, I let my child decide today what he or she wanted to do.”
  • “As far as possible, my child was able to do what he or she liked today.”

In addition, the parents rated their children’s sense of well-being, as well as their own need fulfillment, for the day.

Finally, the parents answered questions about covariates, including the amount of time they spent with their child that day, whether or not the child did any schoolwork that day — registering weekends, holidays, or other days off — and their own worries about the coronavirus that day.

The researchers experienced a fairly low compliance rate, with parents often neglecting to turn in questionnaires. However, they concluded that this was a reasonable outcome in light of the extended test period and the participants’ parenting and job-related workloads. This did not prevent the team from deriving valid conclusions.

At the end of the 3 weeks, the parents completed one final questionnaire capturing their feelings about their children’s behavior, their own sense of well-being, and the family’s overall emotional state.

According to study co-author Florian Schmiedek, also of the Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education, “Our findings from the daily questionnaires suggest that autonomy-supportive parenting is beneficial for the well-being of both children and parents.”

“Helping parents in their daily parental behavior choices might be an effective way to improve the family climate and child well-being in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The study also found that autonomy-based parenting improved family cohesion, with parents experiencing enhanced vitality and a reduction in stress.

“In sum,” the study authors conclude, “autonomy-supportive behavior might have positive downstream effects not only on the receiving child, but also on the social system (the family) and the support provider — also in challenging times as during the [coronavirus] crisis.”

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