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Teaching Kids to Think for Themselves

Hands-off approach to parenting

Emily Millican’s 1 year-old daughter snatched a toy out of her 3-year-old sister’s hand. Rather than tattle or scream at her younger sibling, the 3-year-old found a replacement toy to give her baby sister.

For Millican, 34, it was a proud mom moment. “Our kids are watching us, they are listening to us, even as we say grown-up things.”

Before she was a stay-at-home mom, Millican was a clinical social worker at Alliance for Children in Fort Worth (she still subcontracts on occasion). As a clinician trained in parent-child interaction therapy, she worked to empower parents to connect with their children.

To Millican, the nurture aspect of the parent-child relationship is the foundation to good mental health in children. “They are a part of you, and you them. As a parent, you are laying down this foundation every single day.”  

Though the parent-child bond typically happens quickly, the parent-child relationship develops over time and is influenced by characteristics in the child, characteristics in the parent and the context of the family.

Research shows that there is a direct association between parenting styles, a child’s emotions and behaviors and their mental health too.

And it starts early. Most brain development in children happens before the age of 3. So parents are encouraged to actively engage in their child’s initial touching, talking, reading and playing experiences, which leads to successful parent-guided parent-child collaborations in the future. That’s right: The molding of good decision makers starts at infancy and grows from there.

Jennifer Robinson says the role she now plays in her 9-year-old son’s life is a lot like coaching. The 41-year-old psychology doctoral candidate at Texas Woman’s University in Denton has also taught parenting classes for the Irving Family Advocacy Center in partnership with the Irving Police Department, and she maintains that the most successful parent-child relationships feel more like mentoring.

Partnering with kids is key.

“Collaboration helps kids develop a sense of self and leads to confidence,” Robinson says.

And successful collaborations, with kids of any age, begin by setting limits. You create boundaries for children, but experts say it’s important to make boundaries for yourself as the parent too.

So how do parents successfully do this to support their child’s mental growth?

Explain why you make the decisions you do. It helps kids start to understand the rationale.

Give kids time to play freely. Unobstructed play is crucial to raising children who think for themselves.

Start with small choices. Dawn Hallman, the executive director of the Dallas Association for Parent Education, suggests parents start by narrowing choices for little ones. Begin with simple either-or decisions such as what to wear. Once your child demonstrates that she can manage the choices she makes and the consequences that come with it, move on to bigger decisions like what to have for dinner or where to go on family vacation.

Talk it out. Nudge kids into self-reliance by encouraging them to do things for themselves. Don’t offer your opinion. Instead, talk about the decisions, all the potential consequences and why they might be leaning one way or another.

Don’t ignore poor choices. When kids make a decision that disappoints you, tell them and explain why. Discuss good alternatives for the future.

Avoid threats and bribes. Don’t make promises to encourage kids to make favorable decisions.

Let them practice. Kids are going to make good decisions and some bad ones too. The important thing is that we as parents provide the foundation and freedom to think on their own.

“We want to help our [kids] make their own choices to help them succeed,” Millican says. That’s true for the toddlers they are now and the women they will one day become.