Self-Determination Theory: Why Your Kids Should Get Their Feet Wet

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It’s great to get outside, both of the confines of rooms and of rules. Stepping out of doors and out of the routines of work, school, and activities, refreshes our views and offers new insights to parenting, one of which is the tremendous value in getting out of our kids’ way as they explore their worlds.

We all want our kids to have a sense of determination, to believe in themselves and their ability to not only navigate tricky terrain but also to handle adversity, learning how to pick themselves up and get back into the game (especially when concerned parents may not be there to lend a helping hand). But, and this is key, these lessons are learned, not taught, and parental words pale in comparison to the best teacher—personal experience.

I put this to practice over spring break when I was hiking with my kids. Like all of those on the trail, my kids were delighted to be in warm weather and free from the burden of homework. While it was a beautiful time with buds coming to bloom, crossing the bridges was challenging for all who were sharing the path with us that day.

Most interesting to me were the intra-family dynamics. Confident mom, timid spouse. Exuberant child and cautious sibling. By far the most common: adventurous kids hiking under bright sunshine and a steady rain of “Honey, be careful!” The endless stream of caution made me wonder if there was some great peril to which I was oblivious, which made me wonder what element of childhood adventure was being washed away by the current of worry.

An abundant body of literature supports the idea that kids’ drive, confidence, and resilience hinges on their sense of control, of autonomy, of #Igotthis! Self-Determination Theory posits that intrinsic motivation relies on autonomy, competency, and relatedness. For our kids to believe in themselves, they must learn how to handle adversity through personal experience.

I took special note of one family, whose youngest daughter wanted to take an unproven path across the stream, to go before rather than behind her parents, to forge ahead when others advised turning back. “Oh, no, Sweetie. Let’s not.” “We should go that way instead.” “I am not sure that way is such a great idea.” And, with those parental admonitions, no calamity occurred. Success! Yes, but neither was there any learning.

Parents/teachers/adults rarely get credit for crises averted, especially if the crises are only ones that parents perceive, but that kids see as adventure denied. All of which leads to the question: What would have happened had that girl’s parents instead said, “Sure, Sweetheart, why don’t you try that path?” “Sure, you go first. I think you can handle it.” “Well, sounds like a good idea. If it turns out not to work, I’d like you to think about Plan B. Okay?” Wouldn’t those be better messages to that girl, which, coupled with didactic Experience, combine to make a real learning experience.

Lastly, what crisis was avoided? As best I could see it, wet feet. Cold wet feet mind you, but still only that. And, as I see it, the colder the better. Resilience is born of bouncing back from difficulty. There’s no other way. No difficulty—no bouncing back—no resilience. So, depriving kids of the chance to get their feet wet works against helping them develop one of the most valuable of traits we want for our kids.

This is why I say to look for opportunities to let kids face a little peril, especially if they believe they can handle it. Why? Because encouraging them with #yougotthis! will help foster in them a spirit of #Igotthis!

When was a time you encouraged your kids to practice taking an adventurous step forward? What did they learn?

Ned Johnson

President & Tutor-Geek

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters. A professional tutor-geek since 1993, Mr. Johnson has devoted in excess of 35,000 hours in one-on-one test prep for nearly the entire alphabet of tests. His experience includes work with all ages and abilities in preparation for SSAT and ISEE to ACT and SAT to GMAT, GRE and LSAT.

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