Mothers who encourage autonomy in their kids are viewed more positively by their children, according to a new study from the University of Missouri. The study included more than 2,000 mothers and their children and began by measuring the extent to which mothers controlled play activities when children were 2 years old. When the children were 5, researchers interviewed them to find out about areas of disagreement between mom and child.
“When mothers are highly controlling of small children’s play, those children are less likely to want to engage with them,” said Jean Ispa, co-chair of the university’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “Respect for autonomy is important, not only for children’s growth, but also for creating positive parent-child relationships.”
Ispa said that mothers who start out being controlling often continue to be so when their children enter adolescence. “With small children, mothers mostly use physical controls, but when children are older these directives become more verbal and psychological, such as by restricting what children are allowed to say or by not allowing them to speak their minds,” she said.
Ispa said this does not mean parents should stop setting ground rules or providing input. For example, teaching children not to cross the street without first checking for cars did not negatively impact mother-child relationships. But purposely inducing guilt or telling children how to think, feel and play was damaging.
“Children usually make wise decisions when they have been taught about safe choices as well as consequences,” she said. A good place for parents to start would be to have open discussions and allow their children to express their own points of view. When giving children instructions, explain the reason for a decision rather than simply saying, ‘because I said so.’