In a recent Raising Good Humans podcast, Goldilocks Parenting: How to  Shape Executive Function Skills Through Caregiving Dr. Carlson explains that kids need to realize they have a choice in how they think, act, or feel. As children make these decisions, they own it and learn to realize each has its own consequence, good or bad. This kind of activity and practice strengthens Executive Function skills. 

In a previous blog, she explains the power of autonomy supportive parenting in helping children to delay gratification and to have more self regulation. Here’s how.

Three Typical Styles When Parents Help

When kids are trying to accomplish a goal, like finish a puzzle or do homework, parents tend to have one of three different parenting styles.

  1. Laissez-faireparents let kids figure things out on their own, even if it means kids struggle and don’t accomplish the goal. These parents are laid-back, sometimes to the point of not being present enough. For example, a laissez-faire parent might be on his smartphone while his child works on homework.
  2. Controllingparents expect kids to accomplish goals correctly and quickly, even if it means the parent ends up doing most of the work for their kids. Controlling parents often seem rushed. They may tell their child the correct answer to a homework problem, or even reach across the table and do it themselves, while the child looks on.
  3. Autonomy-supportiveparents let kids accomplish the task at her own pace, and step in to help only as needed. Parents here are watchful and sensitive to their kids’ need for help, but will allow them to feel challenged. For instance, when a child does a puzzle, the autonomy-supportive parent may give hints or gently nudge the correct puzzle piece closer to the child, until the child sees and grabs the piece, and finishes the puzzle themselves. 

The bottom line from Dr. Carlson’s research is that autonomy-supportive parenting seems to be the best for kids’ executive functioning. They think that’s because when children feel empowered in a supportive environment, they are more likely to engage in reflection, the key to thinking before acting.

Autonomy-supportive parenting works because it’s “just right.” It balances being patient and stepping back (laissez-faire) with being helpful and involved (controlling). When children master challenging tasks with this “just right” level of support from parents, they develop autonomy. This gives them a sense of personal agency (“I did it!”) and self-efficacy (“I’m good at figuring things out even if they are hard at first!”)

Dr. Carlson assures parents that it’s not always easy to know when you’re helping too much or too little. However, you can always ask yourself “is this something my child could do on his own without help?” If so, you may want to try stepping back. Simply being mindful of the “just right” level of support can make a big difference. It can help you know when it’s OK to let your child fail at a task.

Remember, every time your child hears the answer no, there doesn’t have to be a battle, just think of Goldilocks. Not too little, not too much, but just right.

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