About this Episode
On this episode, Dr. Amy and Teri are joined by Dr. Emily Edlynn to discuss concepts from her book, “Autonomy-Supportive Parenting; Reduce Parenting Burnout & Raise Competent, Confident Children.” If you’re burned out on doing everything for your kids, confused about punishment vs consequences, or can’t stand the thought of opening Infinite Campus one more time this semester, we encourage you to listen to Dr. Edlynn’s insights! From our three basic human needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to letting your kids fail (without falling apart yourself!), this conversation provided some profound and thought-provoking practices that almost any parent can use.
About Dr. Emily Edlynn
Emily earned a master’s and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the child and adolescent program at Loyola University of Chicago. She works in a small private practice where she specializes in health psychology and works with children, teenagers, and adults. She contributes to “Parents” as their advice columnist in their regular feature, “Ask Your Mom” and has written for major publications and has been regularly featured as a parenting expert across outlets. Her book, “Autonomy-Supportive Parenting; Reduce Parenting Burnout & Raise Competent, Confident Children” is available in bookstores everywhere!
Connect with Dr. Emily Edlynn
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Read the transcript for this episode:
DR. AMY: Hi, smart moms and dads. We’re so happy to have you join us for another episode of the Brainy Moms podcast brought to you today by LearningRx Brain Training Centers. I’m your host, Dr. Amy Moore, joined by my co-host, Teri Miller, coming to you from Colorado Springs, Colorado. Teri and I are really excited to welcome our guest today, Dr. Emily Edlynn. Emily is a clinical psychologist and mother of three who previously worked in academic medicine at two large children’s hospitals and is currently the Director of Pediatric Behavioral Medicine at a private practice in Oak Park, Illinois. Emily writes about the science and real life of parenting in her blog, “The Art and Science of Mom,” has written a regular parenting advice column for Parents.com, and has published articles for national outlets, such as the Washington Post, Scary Mommy, and Motherly. She’s the author of the book, “Autonomy, Supportive Parenting, Reduce Parental Burnout, and Raise Competent, Confident Children.” Welcome, Emily.
EMILY: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here today.
TERI: So, so glad to have you with us and I love your topic. We are going to have so many great conversations here, but before we get into it all, Emily, if you could just tell our listeners a little about yourself, your history, kind of what brought you to where you are today, doing what you do as a clinical psychologist.
EMILY: Sure. So as you heard in my bio, I was in the very traditional academic medicine track. So I had earned my doctorate in clinical psychology and was doing the very traditional trifecta of clinical work and teaching and supervision and research and kind of a very clear pathway of knowing what I needed to do to be promoted. And I had my first two babies in my first very intense job doing pediatric palliative care in Los Angeles and after a move to Denver—this is a lot to track because I have been so many places—I had my third child in Denver. And then my husband got a great job opportunity in Chicago. And when we moved here, my children were one, four and six. And I realized this was a professional crossroads for me to make some decisions about how I was spending my time, how I was integrating my professional identity and my personal life, and I just realized I didn’t want to keep going down the track I was on, even though it was all I knew, because I was really burned out and it wasn’t working. And I had to be honest. So I took a step back and realized I always had a love of writing, and in my journey as a mother, I confronted the parenting guidance of the day, which was not very science based, and I could see how it was contributing to a lot of parental guilt and shame and feelings of failure, especially for mothers, and I became passionate about wanting to change that for the better; that tone, that whole landscape of parenting guidance that’s out there with a more science based yet realistic and compassionate approach to parenting. So I started doing my writing and then working in private practice and I became really committed to this idea of writing my own book. So I wrote the book I would want to read. That’s what I decided to do.
TERI: That’s awesome.
DR. AMY: Yeah. So we talk a lot about parenting styles on this podcast and It’s funny how we make fun of different parenting styles on this podcast too. And we’re super anti helicopter parenting and we make no secret of how we feel about that. So let’s just get right to it—what listeners want to hear from you. What exactly is autonomy supportive parenting and what is the science behind it? You just said, “Hey, what we’re seeing out there is not science based. What people are promoting is not science based.” But your framework and ideas are. So talk to us about that.
EMILY: Yeah, so, you know, I was realizing it just didn’t make common sense to me to be so hands on with my kids all the time. For one thing, it was totally wearing me out. And I didn’t really see that they needed it. And I started to actually think of it as lazy parenting. And I wrote about that for Scary Mommy. But then as I was doing more research from my writing, I found this autonomy supportive parenting, which is actually well known in psychology. But I stumbled across it in a different time of my life where I was a parent and have lived parenting and realized this is actually what we all need to be thinking about and aspiring to, and it’s not out there in the mainstream as a complete framework. And not only does it have right now like over 30 years of all kinds of studies behind it—across age groups from toddlers to teenagers, you know, from lab studies to self-report studies, cross sectional, longitudinal. I mean, it covers all these kinds of ways of doing research for this robust evidence base. But it’s contrasted with controlling parenting in the research, which is very akin to what we call helicopter or intensive parenting, which is the idea of really curating our children’s environments to be optimally enriching and fully protective. And that takes a ton of energy from us while also not giving our children space to develop their own skills and confidence. And so I, I just had this moment of, we have this answer right here of how to do this differently and why it works, but we’re not doing it as a culture. And so that’s kind of what inspired me to put it all together.
TERI: Everything you’re talking about. I’m just over here going, yes, yes, yes. And one of the reasons I think it’s, for me, this is such an important topic. And I said this a little bit before we started, and I’m like, no, no, no, wait, I’m going to say it when we’re recording is because I am a recovering, recovered, mostly recovered, helicopter parent or controlling parent. I have nine kids, Emily, and two adopted kiddos. I know it’s crazy. People are like, “What?!” So yeah, I’ve really experienced different seasons of life in parenting. And my first three kids experienced a completely different type of parenting than my other kiddos because my firstborn had major medical problems. And so I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that. Hey, J Daria. Come say hi. My last, this is a special treat. She’s 11. She is with me today. So she’s a special guest for our podcast. Can you just kind of lean in here and say “hi”?
J DARIA: Hi.
DR. AMY: Hi Jaydaria. It’s so nice to see you today. You’re the first child to ever be on the Brainy Moms podcast. Do you know how special that is?
TERI: It’s awesome. So yeah, Jaydaria is the youngest of the crew and she is experiencing a very different mom than my older kids. So that’s good. Thank you. And so she’s getting to hang out with me today. So that’s really sweet. She doesn’t start school till next week. So sweet, sweet day for us. But so yeah, my oldest, medical problems and Emily, I’d love for you to speak to that. Not just medical problems, but when there are very valid reasons for parents or moms to feel like they need to be that helicopter controlling parent and then maybe how we can shift out of that, how we can recover from that.
EMILY: First, I want to say, as I got so into talking about intensive parenting, I forgot to actually say what autonomy supportive parenting is.
DR. AMY: Oh, yeah, let’s back up and do that.
EMILY: Then I will talk about how that applies when we are parenting kids who are facing more kind of threats to their security for different reasons. So autonomy supported parenting is both a mindset and a set of evidence based strategies. So the mindset is really this idea of being open and curious and flexible about your specific child’s experience in the world, how they’re going through the world, who they’re developing to be as a person. So that’s kind of the, the ambience, the atmosphere of autonomy supported parenting. And then the strategies, which I have a chapter really, you know, getting more specific about each one, include things like taking our kids perspective to really understand this experience. Using a lot of empathy. Building that connection is the foundation of then using these other strategies to expect independence, express trust in their skills to figure things out without you, to use scaffolding, which is a well-known concept in child development. But what it means is really meeting your kids where they’re at developmentally, but then kind of coaching them to push their skills up a level. So it’s starting where there are, but then saying, “I know you can like learn more and, and get more capable.” And so it’s combining those, all of those strategies for this bigger pursuit of raising a child who not only has a sense of agency over their environment and how they’re living their life, but also a really strong sense of self. Because they are figuring out who they are with parents, allowing them this freedom of exploration and this, you know, love and acceptance for their experimentation in their development. So I hope that helps define what we’re even talking about terms.
DR. AMY: Yeah, I love that. And it, it does bring in, like, several child development theorists. I mean, you talked about scaffolding from Vygotsky and it also—I was in the early childhood field for many, many years—and the Reggio Emilia approach to education, Loris Malaguzzi said that children are strong, powerful and competent. When we do things for them, that they’re capable of doing for themselves, we’re robbing them of that opportunity to explore their world and to grow.
TERI: What’s that quote from? Say that again. Who said that, Amy? I love it.
DR. AMY: Loris Malaguzzi, who created the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.
EMILY: So what I really encourage parents to do is, first step, become more aware of those moments of stepping in to do something your child can do. And a lot of it, I have a lot of sympathy for parents. I’ve been this parent. We’re under time crunches, you know, we’re stressed in the moment. It’s easier to do these things. But the big picture is, all of a sudden we’re making all their food all the time when we have 10-year-olds who are fully capable of heating up some leftover pasta, you know, and figuring that that’s what they want to have for lunch. And so I think it’s kind of questioning some assumptions we have are going into automatic pilot as a parent of how to take care of our kids and then look at where we can say, “You know what, you can do this. I know you can do it, and I’m going to back out.”
DR. AMY: And it’s relinquishing some of that control as well, right? I mean, it’s, it almost reeks of codependency, right? That, you know, I have to care for this child. I have to make these decisions. I have to do all of this so that I feel like I’m being a good parent.
EMILY: Yes, and there are polls out there showing that parents I think the intensive way is being a good parent and so we really need to break those beliefs and challenge those beliefs and push on what’s become the cultural norm, and accept when you say, like, we have to be realistic too about they will make mistakes, they will do things wrong, and it’s not supposed to be perfect. They’re supposed to learn. I know, you know, my daughters have been doing their own laundry for a couple years now. They’re 11 and 13. And I remember at the beginning of this, it was during COVID, my older one was like, “I threw my mask in the laundry.” I’m like, “Just the mask?” So she did a whole load with one mask.
TERI: Oh my goodness.
EMILY: I mean, I was so proud of her that she took the initiative. She didn’t ask. She went and took care of it. But I was like, yeah, so there needs to be a whole load. Yeah.
DR. AMY: So you talk about this approach and this framework being grounded in self-determination theory and, you know, and three primary things that as humans, you know, we need to thrive. Could you talk a little bit about that?
EMILY: Yes, yes. So it autonomy supported parenting comes from this larger self-determination theory, which isn’t just a theory, it has been tested around the world. And there’s a lot of empirical evidence that this is indeed true. All of us as humans have three fundamental human needs, which are autonomy, competence and relatedness. So we’ve talked about autonomy is that that sense of agency and having control over our lives and who we are, and then competence is feeling skilled that we have the confidence to manage our daily life. And relatedness is really the foundation for these things to thrive, which is that. Sense of connection and belonging and safety and relationships. So clearly as parents, we’re creating the relatedness with our children from the beginning. That’s their first experience of it. And then that’s really the fertile soil for the other autonomy and competence to bloom from. And it’s true across ages. I mean, all of us need those needs met to have life satisfaction and greater wellbeing overall.
TERI: I think what you’re talking about too, it’s important for our listeners to understand that this concept is something that grows gradually, like the term of scaffolding. It’s not, it’s not like, oh, you have a baby and from the beginning, I’m all about autonomy supported parenting! So, you know, my 1-year-old, oh, they can just do whatever, you know. You just, you can’t have that perspective. It gradually grows because. A little bitty, a toddler, even a preschool or elementary school, you gradually, gradually, gradually give them more space. You step into this process cautiously because we do have to protect our kids and teach them things when they’re little. We have to teach little ones that “no means no,” because if we don’t, then they’re three years old and they run into the street. And you know what? The margin of error here. That’s not good.
EMILY: That’s right. So the really important part of all of this is structure and limits. You know that that is a piece of autonomy. It’s not just knowing our own rights and responsibilities, but how those affect other people. And so we’re also regarding the rights of others when we’re autonomous and understanding boundaries and freedom and how they go together. So, I think, I think It can sound like autonomy is autonomous or supportive parenting is allowing our children to do whatever they want and be whoever they want, but it’s, they need the developmental, the developmentally appropriate limits and structure for growth. And that’s why we’re the parents with fully formed brains to be able to put those guardrails up when needed, but let our kids explore within those guardrails.
DR. AMY: And so how does this approach differ and change in each stage of childhood? Like, what do those decisions and conversations look like?
EMILY: Right, so I do in my book, in the section on real-life parenting dilemmas that cover everything from school to social media to sports and religion, I break down the sections into early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence. Because those are very different parenting seasons and there are different developmental needs for each of those. So, for the younger kids, I would say one of my regrets is I did not encourage their competence as much as I could have. These younger kids are at the height of wanting to be helpful. The problem is their skill set isn’t really helpful. So we sort of don’t notice all the opportunities or seize all the opportunities. And so I think that really focusing on the competence piece in this early childhood, trusting they can do things, showing them that trust, giving them tasks that are safe, but help them feel helpful is a really important part of their growth and development. And of course, I would say the empathy and perspective-taking, it sounds really obvious. Of course, as parents, we should be doing that. But with toddlers, that can be really challenging because they’re so moody, mercurial, you know, they don’t want their toast that way. And it can be really hard to understand what is going on in those little brains, but they’re also at the age of really absorbing your role modeling. And so being able to start labeling those emotions for them, even if they aren’t sure what’s going on inside of them is starting to teach them what empathy feels like. And the more they experience that, the more they’re going to act that out as they get older. So I think those are two of the most important pieces in that early childhood. So for school aged kids, This can be a tough transition from when they are younger and need so much of us all the time, you know, even physically supervising them for their safety. But when they start elementary school, they’re really for the first time in this whole world without us, and it can be hard to resist some controlling impulses to keep curating their environment for them when we’re not physically with them. So I think this is a really important stage of building their confidence in themselves, being away from the family, and doing the social learning around friendships. That’s a really big piece. And helping these kids critically think about problems rather than telling them how to solve problems. So asking a lot of open ended questions, and again, scaffolding where they are, knowing where they’re lacking and what they need coaching around. While also expressing your belief that they can learn and grow and learn how to be good friends or what’s important to them about school or how to behave on social media. I mean, there’s all these really important new growth opportunities in this age group. The other really important thing from the research is that kids who feel like they have autonomy supportive parents—so parents that give them choices, that explain rationale for household rules, who involve them in decision-making and value their opinion—those kids as teenagers are more likely to describe their parents as autonomy supportive. So there is value to laying all of that foundation before the teenage years. And in the teenage years, such a huge stage of identity development and separating from the family to understand who they are outside of the family and experimenting with different identities. So it’s a really important stage of that kind of unconditional acceptance. Of who your child is, really seeing who your child is rather than imposing your ideas on them of their identity, which can be very challenging in our current climate of high competition and, you know, a lot of external expectations. So, in adolescence, I think it’s continuing those expectations for independence, keep pushing those skill levels at their capacity, expressing the trust. A lot of this threads through, but kind of as they’re gaining skills, you can keep pushing more. And with teenagers, they want more than anything to feel understood and to have a sense of agency. So really respecting that asking open-ended questions when you want to lecture them. So, when they do things, and they will, that are poor judgment and making poor choices instead of coming down hard on them right away, taking some breaths and coming at them with, “I’m really curious.” This is where the mindset comes in, of how you made that choice, and what all happened for you in that moment, and showing that you want to understand their experience, and then talking more about what came of that, that they regret, or you know, having them learn from it with you.
DR. AMY: And then, is there a place for consequences?
EMILY: I support consequences. I fully support consequences. What I have seen work with, not every kid, but a lot of kids, is having them come up with their own consequences. So saying, “Okay, you broke our rule. You snuck onto Instagram when you weren’t supposed to,” for example, for a school aged kid. “So what do you think the consequence should be?” You know, so you’re, you’re communicating that there was an expectation, and they broke it, and now there’s a consequence to doing that as part of the learning process. So I think it’s always keeping in mind that discipline is about learning. How can using consequences help your child learn from their behavior? And that’s how it’s different from punishment, where you just say, “Well, you lose your phone for the next week,” and there’s no conversation or dialogue about the experience.
DR. AMY: Yeah, we were talking with another guest last week who said the same advice and they said typically kids will come up with a more severe consequence than you would have come up with.
DR. AMY: So for parents who are like, what do you mean let them come up with it. It’s probably going to work.
TERI: Yeah. I mean, even, even things like, yeah, my 13-year-old son, you know, summertime being on screens gaming, you know, in the evenings and talking to him about, “Okay, well, dude, what do you think is reasonable? Because I’m not cool with you, you know, being up. We’re not nocturnal humans. So it’s not cool for you to be up gaming till one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning. Number one, it’s not good for you. Number two, you laugh and stuff. And it wakes us up. Like that’s bothersome. You know, you got to be respectful of the space.” And so he ultimately, when I’m like, “What do you think is reasonable?” Cause it happened a time or two, like two o’clock in the morning, he’s still up on this screen, you know, in the rec room area. And he’s, he’s like, “Well, I don’t know, maybe 10 o’clock.” And I’m like, “Oh, Bingo!” I thought he was going to say midnight. I’m like, it’s summer, you know? And so he said 10. I’m like, all right, good.
EMILY: Well, ‘cause it also is showing that you trust their reasoning and that you respect them as an individual. If they come up with something that’s totally ludicrous, you just say, “No, like, I don’t think that really is a good fit with what happened.” I mean, you have the ultimate veto power as a parent, you are a position of authority, but you can still involve your children and how this all works and how they’re affected by when they break a rule or have a growing pain, you know, have a tough thing happen.
TERI: I love what you’re talking about here. You’re not just saying, like you said, you’re not saying it’s a free for all. And this, the scaffolding process I often in our, in our podcasts, I really like to come back to the practical, like, what does this look like for listeners? How can listeners really implement this? So a story, just not a story, but a little thing that happened, just popped into my head. So I have grandkids also. So my little 3-year-old grandson was at the house. And he had Rice Krispies just dry. You know, he was just like having a little mid-morning snack and he ended up with rice crispy cereal all over the floor. And so I just go over to him and I’m like, “Oh buddy. Oh, here, we need to sweep that up.” You know? And I, you know, show him where the little hand broom is. “You can do it like this.” Well, so mom, my oldest daughter, his mom, she’s been, she’s got four kids. She’s busy, you know, she has a baby and she hears me talking about that and we’re going to be getting out the door and in like 15 minutes and so she’s just like get it done. And so her thought is, I just got to get this done, get this cleaned up, move to the next thing. And that is what we do so often as parents. It’s easier. To sort of do the helicopter thing do for your kid instead of letting them learn, be intentional to let them learn because he’s not going to do a good job. It’s going to take twice as long. I’m going to have to go back up and, you know, go back and sweep after him. So she went over there and did it 30 seconds and I’m like, “Oh honey, no, the teaching is more important.” You know? And she’s like, “Oh, I know. I just want to get it done.” So maybe speak to that and give us some encouragement. Why is it worth it to take that extra time instead of just doing it for our kids?
EMILY: So I will, I will give a lot of empathy for parents, especially of toddlers. It is nonstop. And what I always talk about is how autonomy supportive parenting is a practice, and it’s not an identity, it’s not a category, it is an ongoing process and practice. And so I think it’s always weighing how much is this going to cause stress versus benefit my child? And you’re not going to be autonomy supportive in every moment. Let’s just like get that expectation out of the way and release it. Right? We want a bigger picture of my kids feel like they’re growing up in an autonomy supportive home. Rather than every interaction needs to be full of empathy and perspective taking and choices, it’s just not always going to happen. So I think it’s having realistic expectations and also remembering that the more our needs are met as parents, so the more autonomous, competent, and related we feel, the better we’re able to do that for our kids. So if we need to take down our stress by doing something for our kids to get out the door, it’s not the end of the world.
TERI: That’s good. That’s so good. Yeah.
DR. AMY: Yeah, I always say that any consequences should not impact my life, right? And so if it causes me more work, then that is not going to be what I’m going to, you know, Imposes a consequence or ask my kid to do. Right? And so, but on the flip side. No, I never wanted my kids to feel like they were my slaves. Right? And so I would always say, “Hey, let’s get this done together.” Like, I know that when my kids were super little and they had 100 blocks all over the living room floor, and it was time to clean up, I would say something like, “Hey, you pick up all the yellow blocks. I’ll get the rest.” Right? And so they did 10% of the work.
EMILY: And I think when you are, when you understand this framework, and you have it in your head that this is how you want to parent, you will see more opportunities for that kind of flexibility, you know? So, okay, I don’t have time for them to clean up all those Legos, but I can still model that they need to take responsibility, right? Even if I’m going to help them make it go faster. So I think it’s once you’re in that mindset, and I’m speaking from experience, because when I was writing the book, I was so immersed in it, I had a lot of self-awareness about where I could be more autonomy supportive with my kids. And so I think just the more you’re steeped in anything that resonates with you and aligns with your values, you’re more motivated to do it when you really understand the why of it. And then you can look for those opportunities and kind of flex the strategies.
TERI: Yeah, I think it’s important to, for our listeners to hear why from a practical perspective. And like I, I mentioned earlier that I’m a recovered, mostly recovered, recovering helicopter or controlling parent, all those terms. And what I’ve seen in my older kids, the one that I, the ones that I parented really, really differently because my son had major medical problems. So we homeschooled. I had to hover in a sense because I was protecting his well-being. I mean, he. had whatever—lots of surgeries. I won’t go all into it but had epilepsy. And so we had, I had to be very protective of his, I did have to curate his environment so that he wouldn’t launch into more seizures with overstimulation and stuff. But that affected his sisters that were right, right younger than him. And it affected my parenting. And ultimately what I saw as they grow, grew up when they were young, we had this picture of very well-behaved, beautiful, wonderful kiddos, right? They looked so polished and lovely, and the relationships were very enmeshed or codependent, like you mentioned. And as they grew up, my son is 28 now, my daughter’s 27, my other daughter’s 23, as they grew up that process of differentiation, which is important. Every kid has to differentiate, or they’re going to be like those young adults in the movies who still live in the basement and their mom is their favorite person and they don’t know how to go out and be with anyone else. That process happened so much later for them and it was painful because they were like fighting to cut the apron strings and it was hard as opposed to my younger kids. There’s a five-year gap between sort of, we call it the first litter and the second litter, and that younger crew, I wasn’t as hovering. They were able to get through that differentiation process in high school. And that’s a process that is hard. They, they have to kind of fight what you believe and, you know, not fight, fight, but back away, not enmeshed and codependent. And those kids are so much more mature and independent and differentiated and healthy than my older kids. And so while it might, it might look pretty when they’re young and you might think this is the way to go, I want to tell our listeners, it’s not going to pan out later. It’s going to be so much more painful.
EMILY: Yeah. And I think your experience. really brings a lot of what the research shows to real life. So we’re seeing that undergraduates in college are just not as confident in their skills. They are not as prepared for independent life without their parents. They’re more anxious. Because they have that insecurity and lack of readiness. So we know that’s happening. And you’re right; they have to hit those developmental milestones, but what we’re doing is delaying it. So then it’s happening at a time of life that’s not fitting with what they need to be doing for that age. And that’s really the disservice that we’re, rom our loving hearts, that want the very best for our children. I mean, this is all because we’re so committed to our children, but we are setting them up to not be ready for the world. And that’s the big picture for me is this type of parenting approach is really preparing our kids to be self-sufficient in the world without us because we’re not supposed to be there for their entire lives.
DR. AMY: So we need to take a break and let Teri read a word from our sponsor. And when we come back, I want you to apply this framework to homework. When we come back.
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DR. AMY: And we’re back talking to Dr. Emily Edlynn about autonomy supportive parenting. And so, Emily, as I have worked and helped parents over the years, what I see is many parents will say, “Yeah, I will let them make their own decisions about stuff that doesn’t matter. But the stuff that does matter, I’m still going to control.” And one of those areas that I see that need for control is homework and grades. Talk to us about that.
EMILY: Yes, that is a big one. And I think part of our culture right now of the academic rigor and competition and stress. I mean, if we fast forward college acceptance rates have plummeted since we were in college, and so there’s, there is a lot. There’s this kind of scarcity mindset around resources for our kids to get a good education as an adult and be successful in their lives. And so there is this sort of hardwired like we need to make sure our children are set up to succeed. However, a lot of this pressure is actually undermining what we’re trying to achieve. So, because grades and a lot of how school is designed is full of external pressures, that undermines internal motivation. And what I haven’t really talked about yet is how this autonomy supportive parenting in the science has been shown to boost internal motivation. And that’s really the key ingredient for kids to thrive. And so what’s happening in the school setting and in academics is kids are performing for these external reasons, but there’s not an internal value or drive to do well for the sake of doing well in their own goals. And what happens is they burn out. And they, if it’s not in high school, it happens in college. And we’ve seen and heard these stories of, you know, more attrition in the first year of college and. I I’ve seen it in my therapy practice. And so what I would encourage parents is that the more we talk to our children about the value of education and their personal goals for their futures, and we let them play around with not taking it seriously and making mistakes at younger ages, the more they’re going to be ready, more ready to take it seriously in high school, if what is important to them is going to college and getting a traditional job. Not traditional job. And having a professional career that requires a college degree. I would also like to put out there that there are multiple ways to be successful in life. And maybe we should also be thinking about defining success as our child being happy, healthy, sure of themselves, focused, motivated, there’s all these ways of defining success. And what we find is actually when kids are feeling those things, they do better in school. So if we can kind of flip the focus to their experience as a person growing up and their identity and figuring out their values, that actually could then help with their academic performance.
DR. AMY: And so I think there’s a balance to that we have to, you know, strike here, right? That I’m all about natural consequences, right? You don’t turn in your homework. You don’t study for that test. You’re going to fail that test or you’re going to get, you know, a lower grade in that class because you didn’t do any homework the whole semester. And so I’m all about letting those natural consequences happen. And then what do we do next, though? Do we just continue to let them fail semester after semester, or can we have conversations that still support their autonomy, but give them ideas to think about? So I really love getting into the nuance of this, because this is where every kid is different, and you really need to focus on what is going on with your child specifically. And so the clinical psychologist, I’m very aware of all the reasons that a kid could be struggling in school. And so those need to be evaluated. So if this is becoming a pattern, and it’s not just a, “I’m too tired to do homework tonight. “And then they’re embarrassed when they don’t have it the next day, and then they do their homework, you know, the natural consequences work for a certain number of kids, but not all kids. So when they’re not working, really looking at what is going on, and having that curiosity again. So for just one example is kids with, you know, weaker executive functioning who have a hard time planning for the future and seeing how my decision of what I’m doing today is affecting what happens tomorrow; they need more structure. They need more of our structure around getting it done. And so that may take working with a professional, you know, to figure out how to do that in a way that’s still a positive interaction and not a power struggle, and not a lot of conflict, because it’s easy to slip into that. But I think it’s using that curiosity of why is my child continuously having a hard time in school?
DR. AMY: And what does that question sound like?
TERI: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. Okay, let’s get to the practical. Yeah.
EMILY: You mean, how would we ask the …
DR. AMY: How would we phrase that? Yeah, to our, to our teenager.
EMILY: Yeah. Okay. So if we’re talking about teenagers, they’re easier, actually, because they are more, they have better cognitive capacity to think about these things compared to younger kids. So, I think it’s really sitting down with them and saying, first of all, “Does school matter to you?” Maybe we’re assuming it does and it doesn’t, you know. What is it like for you in class, in science, when you keep getting Fs? And what’s going on? You know, and just kind of showing that you want to understand it rather than “You’re grounded.” Yeah, you get a sort of number, getting into problems, probably maybe with focus or attention or distraction. Or perfectionism. So something I think we often overlook, especially in this day and age is that perfectionism in kids can lead to worse performance because they question everything and nothing’s ever good enough, so they don’t do it. So I think that’s where the investigation with them needs to happen. What is this like for you? Now as a therapist who works with kids, and this is what I do all day is like ask them questions for their age about their internal experience, and it can be hard for them to answer sometimes. So it’s okay to like keep asking the same question in different ways, you know, just getting at what makes sense to them, but the bigger picture is expressing to them that you really care and that you want to help.
DR. AMY: I can remember a conversation that I had with one of my kids that who was failing in high school math. And I think I said something like, “Hey, how can I support you? Like, what can I do to help? Should I hire a tutor? Would that be helpful?” And he absolutely jumped on that idea. “Yeah, I think I could use a tutor.” Whereas he might not have either thought of that or been afraid to ask, right? Because that’s, that can be embarrassing. And so.
TERI: Or, or Amy, he could have been like. If you had said, “This is unacceptable. I am hiring a tutor. You’re going to work with this tutor three days a week for an hour after—” then his response probably would have been like, “Yeah, I’m out. Fine. Hire the tutor, but I’m not going to pay any attention.” Instead you asked, how can I help? So he was able to own it. Yeah, that’s autonomy.
DR. AMY: So talk a little bit about, I talk to parents all the time who are like inside that Infinite Campus. All the time. They are checking their child’s grades online every single day. “Hey, your homework is late. You didn’t turn this in. How come this isn’t graded yet?” Talk to us about how autonomy supportive parenting looks in terms of that micromanagement of grades day to day.
TERI: Oh, my gosh. And just being, I’m piggybacking on what you’re saying, just being in it when your kid is late with assignments or they’re not, they get an F on a test. Here’s the cruddy thing that’s happening for lack of a more expressive word that’s happening in our schools today is as a parent. I’m emailed constantly. I get an email every single day. This assignment’s missing. You need to ask your student about this thing. You need to ask your student about this test. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, you are the teacher!” And so then I feel like I’m a lousy parent if I’m not in that Infinite Campus and on them all the time. So Emily, yeah, help us.
EMILY: So my, let’s see, I have an incoming sixth and eighth grader and so this all started for me two years ago when my oldest was going into sixth grade. And I was like, “What is this madness? I am grounding myself from looking at this.” So again, every kid is different in terms of how much accountability and oversight they need. And there are some kids who need more regular checking in and accountability. But for kids who need to just kind of find their way that they have the skills to do this, I think it’s talking to them very openly about your expectations about completing work. I always focus on that over the actual grade. “I want you to do the work. You know, that’s the first step. And if you don’t, what’s the consequence? Like, if I start to get these emails, what’s the consequence?” Now this gets very fuzzy because then it’s, “Well, I did turn it in, but the teacher didn’t mark it.” Right?
EMILY: I don’t want to be emailing teachers. That is not going to happen. And my daughters do not want me to email their teachers. So that’s a motivation, for one, where I’ll say, “Well, do I need to get involved?” And my daughter was like, “No, you do not.” And so she has that drive. So again, it’s finding what’s motivating them too. But what we came up with is I would every once in a while, like every few weeks, I would log in and just get kind of a picture of what was going on. But she started to voluntarily share with me how she did on this test, whether it was good or bad, that she had trouble turning in this assignment. So what I realized was when I backed off and wasn’t checking in all the time, she felt more relaxed about communicating with me and getting some assistance here and there where she needed it. So again, you’re going to find your rhythm with your kid, but I think it’s important to let them flail a bit, especially. middle school grades usually don’t even matter. I know in some school systems that kind of affect high school, unfortunately. But I feel like middle school is the perfect time for them to mess around and figure out that they don’t like how it feels when they’re not doing what they know they can do. So I think the other Is really checking on their skill level. Right? And making sure that it’s a match with what’s happening at school.
TERI: And every kid is different. I want, yeah, I want to just make that clear as well to that. Again, just kind of a, an example of how I didn’t do well. My older daughters, I had them kind of in a box of, “You both need to, you do well in school, you get everything done. You do your homework, you get good grades. Like, this is what is expected of you.” And I didn’t let them kind of be who they were. And then fast forward to my two teenage sons. I have right now, 17 and 18. My 18-year-old is super—he’s extroverted. He’s very social. He’s great with people, great people skills, but not academic. My 17-year-old is very academic, but so when I was able to let my 18-year-old be who he is,, he became an intern at the local farmer’s market. He is loved in our little small mountain town as this great, you know, customer service and, you know, business guy kind of perspective. You know, he just does a super job. Whereas my 17-year-old, he cannot stand that environment having to work with people, but he is already, he’s doing excellent. He’s already in college academically. And so I had to let them be who they were.
EMILY: Yeah. And remember, they’re not who we are. So I think the other thing is, you know, I was a serious student from the jump. Loved school. It was always really important to me. So internally motivated. I cannot expect my kids to be the same. That’s not fair to them. That’s not letting them be who they are, but I had to work on that. I really had to work on they are not me. Which sounds obvious, but I think we acted out more than we realized.
DR. AMY: Well, and, you know, I’ve shared this before that, you know, I’m super driven. I’m working on my second doctorate. And I, inadvertently gave my youngest child the impression that that was my expectation for him as well, that he had to be a classic overachiever because I set that example, right? That was never my expectation for my children. Ever.
EMILY: Yep. And in a lot of my vignettes in the book, which I use a lot of them to really drive home the practicality of this approach, it is saying our kids use magical thinking and we don’t realize they’re doing it. And so we sometimes need to be really explicit, like, “I don’t need you to be the star on the hockey team. It’s really okay.” They may have put that in their head because you were a star in high school, you know? And so I think it’s remembering that and being explicit at times around. And I’ve said to my kids, “It wasn’t always great for me that I was so intense about school. Like it, there were harm parts of harm to it, and I don’t want that for you.” And so being kind of open and honest about that as well.
DR. AMY: Yeah, I think that’s a super important point to be explicit about our expectations. My youngest ended up in therapy because he thought those were my expectations. And so he had put so much pressure on himself that his stress bucket was overflowing. And so as that broke my heart. Right? Because that was never my expectation. And so I was not explicit about that apparently.
EMILY: So we’re all, all of us are learning all the time. And I think the more grace we can have for ourselves as parents doing the best we’re doing and being open to growing and changing, that’s the best we can ask for it. But then we also model that for our kids.
DR. AMY: What would you like to leave our listeners with today, Emily?
EMILY: I think that message of using a lot of self-compassion in parenting and that openness to doing it differently and understanding yourself as a parent as you grow in your seasons of parenting change. As your kids go through changes, it’s all a fluid process and you’re doing your best and keep learning and keep growing.
DR. AMY: Excellent. Dr. Emily Edlynn, thank you so much for being with us today. This has been a fantastic conversation. Listeners, we will put Emily’s social media handles in our show notes. Her website is emilyedlynnphd.com. That’s E D L Y N N. And you can connect with her on Facebook and Instagram at Dr. Emily Edlynn. Looks like on Twitter and Pinterest as well. Again, we’ll put all of that in the show notes for you so that you don’t have to remember. Thank you so much for listening today. If you like us, please follow us on social media at the Brainy Moms. Do it now before you forget. If you liked our show, we would love it if you would leave us a five-star rating on Apple podcasts. If you would rather watch us, we are on YouTube and you can subscribe to that channel. Watch us, listen, whatever you want. This is all the smart stuff we have for you today though. Catch you next time.
TERI: See ya!