by Jai Flicker
From early on in my work as an educator, I recognized that to help my students truly thrive I needed to embrace them as individuals, not focus solely on helping them with academic content. It turned out that taking this humanistic approach not only came in handy when a student of mine would come in upset about something that had happened at school that day, but it also nourished my relationships with students in general, which in turn allowed me to better support them academically. For, as David Brooks recently pointed out in a NY Times opinion piece, "students learn from people they love."
Initially, I relied on a combination intuition and common sense to guide my support of students. This worked well enough, but as LifeWorks grew I found myself responsible for training others. When I went to try to explain what I had been doing, I discovered that communicating my approach was more difficult than expected. The work turned out to be too complex for me to organize into a clear and concise framework.
Fortunately, it turns out there are brilliant researchers and theorists out there that have devoted their lives to mapping the territory of human development. When I finally discovered some frameworks that described in great detail the very phenomena that I had been witnessing myself for years it came a breath of fresh air. These theories would give me language for things that I had previously only sensed. They helped explain why some of my best strategies actually worked, as well as why some of my other less successful ones didn't. These theories mapped out the territory of the interior. Or, perhaps more accurately, they shone light on previously hard to see terrain. I had been navigating by feel mostly, but there was a lot I still could not see. Turning on the lights was a game changer.
One of the most illuminating theories I have come across is called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Its name relates to the fact that one of the keys to motivation is allowing others to chart their own course, to allow them to be self-determined, as opposed to controlling them. Over the past forty years of research, this theory has expanded and grown. Today, hundreds of researchers in dozen of countries are contributing to the project of refining this framework, which at its core offers the following insight: When our psychological needs get met, we thrive. When our needs go unmet, we languish.
Just as we all have physiological needs that must be met for us to survive, in order for us to grow and thrive psychologically, our basic psychological needs must be met. The problem is, most of us don't have a clear sense of what these crucial psychological needs are. Fortunately, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, after over four decades of research, have identified the three psychological needs that we all must meet in order to flourish. Deci and Ryan outline these needs in their theoretical framework called Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which is one of the most powerful psychological theories I have yet to encounter.
At the core of SDT is the research-based knowledge that, in order to actualize our human potential, we must ultimately feel in charge of our own lives.
Autonomy refers to individuals being the source of their own actions, masters of their own destinies. Those who exhibit autonomy make choices as an authentic expression of themselves.
While autonomy is often confounded with the concept of independence, the two concepts differ in important ways. To be independent means to go it alone. But we can act autonomously while still allowing others to contribute meaningfully to our lives. This is possible as long as, in the end, we feel empowered to make our own decisions, not controlled or coerced. When we, as parents and educators, end up making choices for children, even with good intentions, we end up thwarting their autonomy.
All too often, we end up stifling people's sense of autonomy when we get caught up trying to manage their behavior. One simple alternative to managing behavior is to support teens as they try to make tough decision for themselves. Let them bounce ideas off of you. Help them think through various options or scenarios. Share your own relevant life experience so that they might learn from you. However, at the end of of the day, to support autonomy we must allow them to make their own choices.
Parents often fear that if they let their teens start making their own decisions then they'll immediately start making really bad, even dangerous choices. But this is a misunderstanding of where bad decisions come from. I have seen just the opposite -- I have seen kids make some of their best decisions when given the most autonomy support.
The second fundamental need central to human development and wellbeing is that of relatedness, or more simply put, the need for love. Our need for relatedness gets fulfilled when we feel connected to others and when we experience a sense of belonging, both with other individuals and with the community as a whole. Feeling cared for by others, as well as caring for them in return, provides us with an extremely important sense of security and well-being.
One of the best ways to help children develop a strong sense of relatedness is to provide them with unconditional love. Love that is freely given and is not based on performance or achievement leads to optimal development. This is because love based on performance can be lost if one's actions don't measure up. Offering conditional love can be an effective way to control behavior, but it does not create the secure context in which children thrive. Conditional love tends to lead to a range of undesirable outcomes, such as anxiety, resentment, amotivation, etc. I do not mean to imply that it is somehow harmful to praise kids for their achievements. We just need to make sure that the message that we love and care about them regardless of performance is well established first.
A third fundamental need identified by Self-Determination Theory is the need for competence, which occurs when people feel effective in their ongoing interactions with the world around them. We all need opportunities that would allow us to exercise and express our skills and capacities.
All parents want their kids to be confident, but true confidence comes from having one’s needs met, which includes the need for competence. Not everyone is going to be good at everything, of course, but that is not necessary for a healthy sense of competency. Rather, we need to experience a reasonable level of competency within a select few domains. A child who struggles in school but excels in sports, or drama, or as a musician, will fare better than a child who struggles in school but does not experience competence outside of school.
Supporting the development of competence inevitably involves providing some form of technical training or coaching, and we can support this need in teens even when we don't have the technical skill to pass on ourselves by offering encouragement. Learning any new skill is fraught with challenges and, at times, frustration. When kids hit a wall and feel like giving up, empathizing with them and offering encouragement can help them push through.
Putting Theory into Practice
As we wrestle with how to best support teens, one sure bet is to focus on helping them meet their psychological needs. By placing autonomy, relatedness, and competence at the forefront of our decision-making as parents and educators, we can help teens reach their full potential.
At LifeWorks, we do this every day. When students arrive, we make sure to connect with them as people, not just as students to be tutored. Sometimes, this is just a warm "Hello, how are you?" Sometimes, this is a five-minute check in about the student's day. Whatever form it takes, establishing a connection is key to providing meaningful academic support.
As students transition into work mode, we help them devise individualized plans for their sessions rather than simply telling them what to do. We do not leave them to their own devices (literally). Rather, we ask helpful, supportive questions such as: What do you need the most help with today? What would you like to accomplish during your session? Which of your assignments do you think will take the most time? By asking such questions we help facilitate the student's own decision making process, thereby nurturing and supporting their sense of autonomy.
Once a personal connection has been established and a plan is formulated in an autonomy-supportive way, students are really ready to learn. By taking the time to attend to a student's needs, we create an optimal learning environment, which makes teaching them new academic material much more effective. This, in turn, leads to increase student competency. When all three fundamental needs are getting met, that's when students truly thrive!
Written by Deb Blum
Is it important to you that your kids have a voice?
You know – that they question things, not just take things at face value, and feel like they can stand up for things they believe in? And stand up for themselves when they need to?
It’s really important to me.
Sometimes they disagree with me. They might say no. The might even dislike something I say so much that they speak to me in a tone or with words one might call “disrespectful.”
It’s tricky territory. We want them to have a voice. We want them to question things.
But not us, dammit. Ha, only half kidding here, right?
When we look at the long haul, can we both agree we want them to have a voice?
But we also want them to be able to be in relationships with people, expect that they will have bosses and other people of authority who they need to listen to even when they don’t want to, and we want them to be respectful of other people even when they don’t agree.
When your kids use tone, roll their eyes, or give you attitude, I’ll bet that your knee jerk reaction is to “feel disrespected” and talk back (likely in a disrespectful tone), withdraw, tell them to stop, or do something else that is likely to shut down the conversation. It’s a natural tendency that I think we all have.
What if, instead, you were able to take a few breaths and try something like this:
“I notice you have a different opinion than me, and I get the feeling you're afraid I won’t listen to you or that I’m not listening to you. Your tone and words give me the impression you’re angry and frustrated. I’d love to do this over in a way where I give you my full attention and an open mind and YOU say what you were saying — disagreeing, arguing, or whatever — with respect and kindness. I promise you I'm going to try to listen and not interrupt you if you promise you will believe that and not get defensive.”
That’s just one example, there are many ways to do this. I know it’s not easy, but kids don’t come into the world knowing this stuff, we need to teach them how to communicate.
THE BEST WAYS TO TEACH THEM HOW TO COMMUNICATE ARE:
Your kids can be free thinkers. They can have a strong voice—and they can share that voice respectfully with others and with you. But it takes practice for them (and sometimes for us parents, too). This week, let go of the idea that your kids are being purposely disrespectful and help them find the line between free thinking and respect.
NOTE: Only you can know if their disrespect has crossed the line to being abusive. This blog post refers to run-of-the-mill kid stuff but if you believe you are being abused by your child, please get support.
Share in the comments how you balance giving your kids a voice and teaching them how to be kind and respectful.
Written by Deb Blum
I know you love your kids. Unconditionally.
The real question isn’t whether we love our kids, but rather – do they FEEL loved unconditionally.
You may be thinking, “Of course they do!” But I've seen that sometimes I make love and acceptance conditional—without even realizing it at the time.
This is really “up” for me right now. My older son is off to high school next year, and I'm really curious how we’ll be able to ensure he feels loved no matter what he does and who he is, while still setting high standards for him to live up to his potential.
The funny thing is that everything we do comes from the place of love, right? We genuinely have the best of intentions.
Stick with me while I dissect where our intentions and our kids’ perceptions may differ.
We want our kids to be accepted by their friends so we encourage tweaks and adjustments to their personality (toughen up, kiddo).
We want them to be acceptable in society, so we urge changes in behaviors (stop chewing with your mouth open).
We want them to be successful and do great things, so we set a high bar (all As and you’ll get that new iPhone) and rationalize that it’s our job to stretch them and ensure their success and financial independence.
We want them to be responsible so we nag them about their laundry, homework, and the toilet seat.
We're trying to protect them. We want the best for them.
But what if … to a child … those minor adjustments, pressures, and nudges are heard as "you aren’t enough" or "I’d love you more if"… or "I don’t love you as you are."
MY HEART BREAKS A LITTLE AS I THINK ABOUT HOW MANY TIMES I’VE BEEN CRITICAL OF MY KIDS.
It’s tricky territory. We want them to be socially conditioned enough so they’ll have friends and be likable. We want them to be accepted by their peers. Then there’s that pretty widely held belief out there that it’s our responsibility to shape them into “something better.” And, that if we don’t, our kids will surely miss the mark, end up a mess, and become homeless or live forever in our basement.
WHAT MESSAGES ARE WE REALLY SENDING?
Ironically and regretfully, in order to make them into this “better” person that will be more “acceptable” to others, we actually might be creating a situation where our kids don’t feel acceptable … to us!
When we were little, the same thing happened to us. We were taught that there are parts of us that aren’t acceptable (you’re too silly, too shy, too geeky, too quirky, too bold, sing too loud, aren’t grateful, want too much, are too much, etc.).
We learned to reject parts of ourselves to be accepted by our primary caregivers—we learned that in order to feel that love, we need to act the way that makes us most lovable.
Even if you would never, ever, in a million years stop loving your child no matter what he or she does, it’s possible that little messages you send are being perceived by your little one as conditional love: “I will love you more if you stop doing x or start doing y.”
OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THEM IS IMPACTED
Ultimately, we create disconnection in our relationship. Which is the opposite of what we want.
So how do we show unconditional love? How do we rebuild the connection?
TODAY TRY THESE 4 THINGS:
1 – Bite your tongue. When you want to criticize, stop and find something you love about your child to focus on. Spend time really inquiring into why this behavior bothers you so much.
2 – Separate the behavior from the child. Instead of: “You’re such a slob. Why can’t you put your clothes in the hamper?”, talk neutrally only about the behavior (the clothes belong in the hamper or please put your clothes in the hamper). I know it’s tough, especially when you feel like you're constantly reminding your child about something. But try. Stop, get calm, say what you need to say about the behavior.
3 – Avoid labeling. Labels (slob, shy, lazy, athletic, funny, soooo kind, an “A student”, forgetful, too loud, too quiet, genius, wild, quiet, musical, clumsy, smart, chatty, class clown) can stick and potentially keep our kids from becoming who they really are. And sometimes they aren’t really accurate – perhaps they are own projections, based on our interpretations and fears. If it’s a “negative” trait, get curious about why this trait bothers you, what are you worried about if they behave in that way? If it’s a more positive trait, get curious why it’s so important to you that your child be [trait]. Labels limit us from seeing the real and unique child in front of us – their complex, changing, contradictory, multidimensional little selves. And they limit them from BEING their full selves and from changing and evolving because they feel confined by the limitations of the label.
4 – Make time to be present. Our kids want time with us more than they say they do. This week, find 5 minutes free from distractions. In this time, put aside your preconceived notions of who your child is and pretend you are just meeting him or her. Each time see if you can learn something new about your ever-changing child. Perhaps sit down while they're watching a video and ask them what kind of videos they most like on YouTube. Ask them to teach you to play a game. Jump on the trampoline. Walk the dog. Eat ice cream. Get curious.
WANT TO GO DEEPER? Here are the Parents' Inner Work Insights:
Here’s a bigger stretch goal – accept and love yourself unconditionally. This does NOT mean that we don’t expect more from ourselves. But we don’t do better because we beat ourselves up. Face it, we’re all imperfect humans. If we can practice accepting the things about ourselves that we don’t like, it will naturally get easier to accept those things in our kids. I know this is edgy. Let’s say they’re lying. I’m not suggesting that we accept their dishonesty. Rather, I’d like us to really examine our relationship with lying before we get into it with them. The truth is that most people lie (even you!). Even if it's those little white lies, we still seem to be able to rationalize our little lies. We often lie to ourselves. And sometimes we even tell bigger lies.
Can we honor the impulse to lie? Who hasn’t felt that impulse to defend ourselves with a lie?
When we feel ready to talk to them about lying, we may want to start by acknowledging that it's normal to feel the impulse to lie, but we must practice being honest so that we can have a good relationship based on trust. That’s the nuance. We don’t make our kids “wrong” for feeling the impulse to lie...we help them see the benefits of not lying and guide them to making better choices. It’s not that we don’t expect more – we just bring more conscious awareness to the discussion. We stop reacting with judgment and instead do our own inquiry into our judgments and begin guiding with mindfulness and self-awareness.