Tag Archive for autonomy

What Legos & Ducks Teach Us About Our Children’s Drive to Learn

It may sound like it was a day in preschool, but it was a group of 22 adults recruited for a study. Each recruit was given five small plastic bags containing six Legos in each one. Four of the Legos were yellow (one of which had an eye on either side) and two were red. In part one of this study, researchers asked the participants to build ducks in ways that “felt playful.” In the second part of the study, they asked the participants to build ducks in a way that “did not feel playful.” Finally, the researchers helped the participant process and describe the two approaches to building ducks using the bags of Legos.

When asked to be playful, the participants reported consciously accessing their autonomy so they could intentionally do what they wanted and build a “creative duck.” Those asked to build a duck in a “non-playful” way reported tapping into their mechanical mode to build the prototype duck.

Playfully building the ducks also led the participants to approach the Legos more thoughtfully, “sensing the bricks” before building and thus allowing ideas and possibilities to arise and flow more freely. In a manner of speaking, they playfully sensed the Legos and followed the Legos into a playful version of a duck. And, in fact, they surprised themselves with novel-looking ducks, not simply ordinary ducks. And participant asked to build a duck in a “playful way” enjoyed building their ducks. Moreover, their unique designs motivated them to want to do it again.

Approaching the duck construction in a non-playful way, on the other hand, did not result in surprisingly novel-looking ducks but in the mechanical construction of expected ducks. It also did not result in an enjoyable or motivating experience.

This study suggests an important factor in helping our children develop a love for learning, a drive to learn. The factor? Play! The playful approach in the study noted above provided three ingredients that culminated in the motivation to learn more.

  1. Autonomy. When building the ducks in a playful manner, the participants had to choose how they wanted to create their duck. They were implicitly given choices. We can encourage our children to learn by giving them choices. Play provides a myriad of choices for our children, beginning with the choice of what they want to play. When given a variety of items, they can choose how to assemble those items or even what they might represent. A box can become a car in one game and a television in another. Autonomy is further bolstered as children negotiate with one another to reach a compromise on how to play the game. In this whole process, our children learn. They learn about one another and about effective social interactions. They learn about the properties of the objects they are playing with. They learn about creative story telling. They learn physics and the limits of their physical abilities. They learn autonomy.
  2. Absorption with the materials with which they are engaged. Children get lost in the play as their stick becomes a magic wand or a royal staff or the building block for a secret fort. Who knows what the play materials will become? Barbie may fly and birds may swim. It’s their choice. (Remember autonomy?) So let the play begin with interesting and engaging materials. Such materials are often simple. In fact, the best toys for children are those they can act upon and use to create whatever action they desire rather than toys with predetermined rules of play. After all, imaginative play can make our children a head taller than themselves.
  3. Surprise often occurs when given the freedom to manipulate the materials of play and create something of their choosing. Surprisingly, the tree gives advice rooted in wisdom, the negotiation turns toward compromise and an ingenious resolution, or a blanket magically provides safety from the monster only when used to help another. Yes, children’s play will be full of surprises and insights.

Overall, this process of play creates a cycle of creative exploration and learning that leads to the “personal reward of surprising discoveries.” This, in turn, will encourage and motivate our children to continue learning. It will create a drive to play and learn. Let’s not squelch the drive. Let’s just play.

What Does Homework Have to Do with Conscientiousness?

Did you know that conscientiousness—the desire to do one’s work well and to do it thoroughly—takes a temporary dip in late childhood and early adolescence? However, a study that followed 2,760 students as they transitioned through grades 5 through 8 suggests a way to avoid this dip. Specifically, they found that students who “thoroughly and meticulously” completed their homework did not encounter a dip in their conscientiousness. Instead, they actually exhibited an increase in conscientiousness. In other words, students who invested effort in completely their homework showed greater conscientiousness in 8th grade than in 5th grade. Peers who did not invest in homework showed a decline.

“So what?” you might ask. Well, the benefit of conscientiousness reveals itself in higher incomes, better health, and healthier relationships in adulthood. So, developing this skill as a child and young teen has long-term benefits. That being said, how can you help your child become more diligent in completing their homework? Here are five ideas.

  • Remember whose homework it is. The homework is your child’s responsibility, not your responsibility. Allow them to do their own homework and suffer the consequences of not doing it or doing it haphazardly as well as the consequences of doing it thoroughly and well. Let them the freedom to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This will help them grow a greater sense of autonomy and competence as well. Don’t rob your children of this chance.
  • Your child or adolescent may benefit from a routine time and place in which to complete their homework. Pick a time that works best for them and your family. That may be immediately after school. Some children, however, may need a break after school and complete homework better after that break. Also, pick a place where your child can complete their homework with minimal interruptions. Determine what works best for your child and your family. Then establish a flexible time and place in which they can complete their homework.
  • Appreciate your child’s effort in completing their homework. Acknowledge that they have taken time out of their day to do their homework when they could have been playing outside, watching tv, or playing a video game. Don’t go overboard with the appreciation and praise. Simply observe their effort and their dedication and acknowledge it. Everyone loves a little recognition for their effort.
  • Separate homework from watching TV or playing video games. Don’t watch tv or play video game while doing homework. Your example will provide a strong example in this area. If you sit in front of the TV while reading for work or completing a work task, your child will learn that doing homework in front of the TV is ok. Teach by example.
  • Make homework fun. I know…it sounds crazy, but you can make homework fun. Provide a favorite snack. Turn the homework into game. For instance, you might make it a race that combines time, correct answers, and neatness to achieve a final score. Or you could turn homework into a bonding experience by completing your work tasks in the room where they are completing their homework. You get the idea. Be creative and make homework “fun.”

Five ways you can help your child become more diligent in completing homework…which will translate into greater conscientiousness with all its benefits.

Letting Go One Step at a Time

Our youngest daughter moved out of our house and into her college room today. I won’t get to tell her “good night” at the end of each day, hear her come down the stairs in the morning to start her day, or enjoy our “Tuesday Daddy-Daughter Days” now.  On the other hand, I won’t have to ask her to put her stuff away every day or work my way through her leftovers in the fridge. I will really miss her daily presence in my life. Still, I have to say, it’s not the first time I’ve had to watch her take a step away from me and toward independence. This is just another step in a series of steps that began many years ago with the words, “No, I do” as she pulled away from me to zip her own coat. Some of her steps have been sure-footed, some hesitant. Most have proven more difficult for me than they were for her. She has learned the pace most comfortable for her in stepping toward independence. She has grown more confident in her abilities. Me…well, I’m just a “therapist with separation anxiety” (her words, by the way). I don’t completely agree with her assessment, but I have to admit…I have experienced some separation anxiety with each step she has taken. Overall, watching my daughter mature and walk toward independence has increased my joy. But, I have experienced some separation anxiety…and, I have learned at least two things from this adventure of letting go.

  1. I learned the importance of observing my daughter closely. Observation builds a foundation for understanding our children’s strengths and interests. It allows us to learn about their competencies and their developmental abilities. Observation allowed me to see what my daughter had learned, what she already knew, and what she was ready to learn and do. With all this knowledge, I was better able to present opportunities that fit my daughter’s readiness to learn while still challenging her to grow. It allowed me to keep the environment conducive to her abilities. Observe your child closely and you will learn the same things about your children. Even learning all this, you might struggle to learn the second lesson. I know I did.
  2. I learned to trust my daughter to initiate and explore herself and her world. This meant I had to learn to believe in her competence to learn. Sure, I supported her exploring and learning (just check my pocket book), but I had to trust her enough to let her go, to take a step away, and explore more and more independently. I had to trust her ability to manage the discomfort of trying something new with only my distant watchful eye for support. I had to trust her to learn from her mistakes without rescuing her…or sheltering her from future mistakes. I had to trust her to learn her limitations and strengths. And, as she did, she became more confident. Her judgment improved. And, I could trust her more. Trusting your child to takes steps toward independence throughout life will do the same for you as well.

Observing will increase your ability to trust. As you trust, you will observe all the more and rejoice in the growth you see. All the while, you will find yourself letting go one step at a time and trusting each step of the way…even if it does still remain difficult to watch them grow up and leave home.

3 Tips to Motivate Your Child

What did you do as a kid just for the fun it? I remember spending hours riding my bicycle. On the other hand, cleaning my room was not very fun or motivating. I recently read a review that described 3 factors that help build internal motivation. Contemplating these three factors (yes, I know–who contemplates motivation “just for the fun of it”), I could see why bike-riding was motivating and fun for me. First, bike-riding gave me a sense of competence. It was easy enough that I could do it; but it also presented challenges. For instance, could I make it up the next hill or would I have to get off and walk part way? If I did not make it up the hill one day, could I make it by the end of the week? How long will it take me to get to my destination…and can I shorten that time over the next couple of trips? Each of these challenges presented an opportunity to grow more competent and efficient as a bike-rider. A growing sense competence motivates people.


Second, riding my bike gave me a sense of autonomy. I was on my own. I could make choices about where to go, what path to take, and how fast to travel. The choices were mine! I had the “wind at my back and the sun on my face.” An adventure awaited around every bend. One time I was even “tailed” by an army helicopter. Later, I discovered it was my uncle, but the adventure of fleeing before an unknown army helicopter was exciting. Yes, riding my bike gave me a sense of autonomy, filled with choices and adventures. 


Third, I often rode my bike to visit friends…or, I rode with friends. Bike-riding helped me connect with other people. Where ever we went, my friends and I could stand around our bikes and talk.  Riding my bike was a ticket to connection, a journey to relationship.


You can see why I was motivated to ride my bike. It gave me a growing sense of competence, personal choices that built autonomy, and the opportunity to connect with friends. Cleaning my room, on the other hand, did not instill a sense of competence and presented no real challenge. I usually had to do it in response to my mother’s directive–I had no choice and no sense of autonomy. And, cleaning my room did nothing to enhance my relationships. My friends weren’t even allowed in my room. I know cleaning my room was, and is, important; but it is just not very motivating. But, could a parent use these three factors to help motivation their children to do things like clean their rooms? I think it might work. Consider these tips:


Help your child build a sense of competence or independence by allowing your children the opportunity to help with chores and jobs that present some challenge. Instead of simply “picking up the clothes,” let them help paint the bedroom, devise a new plan for storing their clothes (check out this fun theory video for ideas in this area), or make it a game in which you score points based on speed combined with efficiency and final cleanliness. We once attached each task of a morning routine to a puzzle piece for our preschool daughter. She then faced the challenge of finishing her morning routine to see what picture she produced with the puzzle pieces. She loved it…and the morning routine suddenly became easier. Do whatever you can think of to make the chore more of a challenge. Of course, some chores are simply boring. But if we can find creative ways to make more of them exciting, maybe the boring ones won’t seem so bad.


To help your child develop a sense of personal autonomy, give them options and choices. Let them choose when to complete a chore, which of two necessary chores they will do for you, or how to do a chore. I like to cut the grass–sometimes in vertical rows, sometimes in horizontal rows, sometimes in a square, sometimes in diagonal rows, and sometimes I even start with letters (see the picture on the left for a message I recently left in the lawn for my wife when she returned from a trip). Either way, the grass still gets cut. Let your children have the same freedom in completing their chores. Teach them that they have options and choices.


Use chores to build connection with others by doing some chores with your children. Chip in and enjoy working together in the yard. If you plan on painting something, have a paint party with pizza and pop that your children, their friends, you, and your friends can all enjoy. Sing a song together while working. Enjoy working in groups to complete volunteer work in the neighborhood as well. Use your imagination to discover more ways to build connection by having fun working together.


I know that children will still not enjoy every chore…who does? But attempting to incorporate these three ideas into some of the household chores may help reduce their resistance to chores in general. And, your whole family might have a little fun in the process.

Parenting Preschoolers, Marshmallows, & Success

What does parenting preschoolers, eating marshmallows, and success have in common? Apparently a lot. Daniel Goleman describes a fascinating study involving preschoolers and marshmallows. A researcher engaged a 4-to-6-year-old in play. After a short time, he told the child he had an errand to run. He plopped a marshmallow on the table and said, “If the marshmallow is there when I return, you can have two marshmallows.” The researcher then left the preschooler alone with the marshmallow for 15-20 minutes. Some preschoolers covered their eyes. Others turned around and “ignored” the marshmallow. Some even petted the marshmallow as though it were a stuffed animal or licked the table around the marshmallow. Of course, some ate the marshmallow. Those who did not eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned enjoyed two marshmallows. When the preschoolers prepared to graduate from high school, the researchers did a little follow up research. They discovered that the preschoolers who did not eat the marshmallow (waited until the researcher returned and earned a second marshmallow) were described by teachers and parents as more competent than those who quickly ate the single marshmallow. They scored an average of 210 points more on SAT tests. They tended to present as more positive, self-motivating, self-confident, and persistent. They exhibited the ability to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal (like waiting to get a second marshmallow). These habits, with delayed gratification as the centerpiece, can go on to contribute to thriving marriages, greater career satisfaction, and better health. This “marshmallow study” suggests that persistence and the ability to delay gratification sets the foundation for children to flourish and cope with the pressures of life. So, how can we help our children learn persistence? How can we help our children learn to delay gratification?
Researchers from Brigham Young University have recently helped us answer this question. They published a study that followed 325 two-parent families (with 11-14 year old children) in an effort to discover the origins of persistence. They found that both parents contributed to persistence. Interestingly though, persistence gained through fathers led to higher engagement in school and lower rates of delinquency over time. What did these fathers do that had the greatest impact on a child’s level of persistence? They did three things that all parents can do:
     1.      The fathers engaged in warm, loving relationships with their children. They were available to their children and engaged them in interactions. They listened to their children. They played with their children.

2.      The fathers held their children accountable for their behavior and emphasized the reasons behind the rules. They loved their children enough to teach them right from wrong. They pointed out inappropriate behavior and disciplined that behavior. At the same time, they explained why that behavior was inappropriate and explained alternative desired behaviors.

3.      The fathers gave their children an appropriate level of autonomy. They did not hold them back; nor, did they push them beyond their ability. This demands knowing your child. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What are they developmentally able to do or not do? To learn the answers to these questions, a parent must take an interest in their child. They must become a student of their child and their child’s development.

Although this study pointed to the benefit of fathers in building persistence, both parents can practice the three ingredients noted above. When you do put these skills into practice, you increase the chances that your child will grow in their ability to stick to a task until it is done and pursue a goal until they achieve it. That is the beginning of success!

Learning to Love in the Wilderness of Adolescence

My daughters are currently navigating their teenage years (yes, I have the privilege of fathering two teenage daughters). My wife and I are very proud of them. They have made excellent decisions in life so far; and, they are both wonderful, loving people. Still, my wife and I are now trying to guide them through the wilderness that stretches between the confinement of childhood and the promise land of adulthood. They lack life experience and the related foresight to fully understand the potential consequences of their choices. And, they can be emotionally driven, impulsive, and just plain…well, you get the idea. It’s not that they are bad. They just want to “spread their wings” and test them out, assert their autonomy, and move toward that promised land of independent adulthood…even though they don’t fully understand the struggles involved in keeping that “promised land” flowing with milk and honey.  
I have to tell you, sometimes I find it very frustrating. My wife and I, their parents, have more experience and more wisdom to share. If they would only listen to that wisdom, life would be so much easier! They could avoid so much pain. But, then again, maybe this journey through adolescence is more about my struggle than their struggle. Perhaps this trek through the wilderness is a time for God to teach me about relying more on Him and adding depth to a lifestyle of true love. Consider just these few examples:
      ·         I share “great words of wisdom based on years of experience” and get a “less than enthusiastic response,” to say the least. I help other families deal with adolescent angst. I know the developmental issues, the striving for autonomy and the search for identity. Certainly I should know what my own daughters need to grow up healthy and strong. From the back of my head, a still small voice reminds me that “love is not puffed up.” Love is humble. Those who love do not think too highly of themselves or their wisdom. Love accepts influence from others, listens to understand, and trusts in the ability and wisdom of others to learn and grow. So, I wander through the wilderness of adolescence, humbly trusting that God will protect, that our earlier teachings will guide, and that our loving presence will stimulate continued growth.

·         Most adolescents, my daughters included, don’t seem to understand the great opportunity to learn from a parent’s mistakes and avoid the pain related to those mistakes. Instead, they want to make independent choices, suffer the same consequences, and experience the same pain. I can feel the anger boiling up inside me when they won’t accept a word of advice or turn my mistake into their learning… and then that still small voice whispers in my ear, “Love is not easily provoked.” In the wilderness of adolescence I’m learning that love practices self-control. Love remains in full possession of feelings, gives a blessing for an insult and practices kindness in the face of rudeness.

·         I grow impatient waiting for my daughters to learn from the first and mostly insignificant consequences of some decision, to pull out of the downward spiral before they crash and burn. I even encourage them to pull out by pointing out the dangers. But, they keep trying to fix it. They want to make it right in their own way, with their own effort, by their own power. I find myself impatiently pacing the floor and worrying when I hear that “still small voice” speaks up again, saying, “Love is patient.” Love suffers long and is kind. How do I practice patience in dealing with an adolescent who grumbles about rules and limitation put in place for their own good? It is so difficult to practice patience as our adolescent walks a tightrope between potential disaster and fun? But “love is patient”…and “love hopes all things.” So, I practice patiently waiting in trust and confidence, believing that the seeds of wisdom that my wife and I planted will soon begin to sprout and trusting that their common sense will mature and take shape through the pruning that the simple consequences provide.

·         That voice continues to speak in my ear, “Love believes all things.” It believes the best about our children. Love believes that they act with the best of intentions, not with the intent of hurting us or pushing us away indefinitely. “Love endures all things.” It remains present, through the good times and the bad. Love abides and tarries with kindness, even amidst frustration. Love perseveres even under trials.
Yes, I am learning many things as we wander through the wilderness of adolescence, the greatest of which is love. I make mistakes; we all do. But love covers a multitude of mistakes…and sins. So, I invite those of you with adolescents to join me in learning how to love more deeply as we trek through the wilderness of adolescents. Bathed in prayer and listening to that “still small voice,” we can move toward that promise land of adulthood together. If you have any ideas to share, please do. Share your wisdom in the comment section below.