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Children Feel Most Positive About Mothers Who Respect Their Autonomy

New research shows that mothers who support their children’s need for autonomy tend to be viewed more positively by their children.

“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 of Missouri Department of Human Development and Family Studies and a professor in the College of Human Environmental Sciences.

“Respect for autonomy is important, not only for children’s growth, but also for creating positive parent-child relationships. We found that mothers who supported their children’s autonomy were regarded more positively by their children than mothers who were highly directive.”

Ispa’s study, which included more than 2,000 mothers and their children, measured maternal directiveness — or the extent to which mothers controlled activities — in play when the children were two years old and then during a discussion about areas of disagreement when the children were in the fifth grade.

She found that mothers’ tendencies to display controlling behaviors during toddler play time predicted the extent to which the children viewed their mothers positively or negatively when the children were in fifth grade.

She noted that these results did not differ by ethnicity or gender of the children.

“Mothers who are very directive when their children are toddlers often tend to still be controlling when their children enter adolescence,” Ispa said.

“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. It’s not surprising that their children begin to view them in a negative light.”

Allowing children autonomy does not mean parents should stop setting ground rules or providing input, Ispa noted.

She added that behavioral controls, such as teaching children not to cross the street without first checking for cars, did not negatively impact mother-child relationships like the psychological controls, such as purposely inducing guilt or telling children to think, feel, and play in certain ways.

“Many times, parents think that employing these controlling behaviors is the ‘right way’ to raise children, but our research shows that really does not work,” Ispa said.

“Allowing children age-appropriate levels of autonomy to make safe decisions is very good for kids, and they usually will make wise decisions when they have been taught about safe choices, as well as consequences.

“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 reasons for decisions rather than simply saying, ‘Because I said so.'”

The study was published in Social Development.

Source: University of Missouri-Columbia

Children Feel Most Positive About Mothers Who Respect Their Autonomy

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Children Feel Most Positive About Mothers Who Respect Their Autonomy. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 31 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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