There is much debate about the role of parents in a child’s learning journey. While there is no one formula that works or fits all children, there are behavior patterns that nurture a holistic upbringing.

In this blog, I blend my experiences at home, as a teacher in the classroom and tie it with the Self Determination Theory that deconstructed the role of parents in education and highlighted its dimensions. 

The Self Determination Theory (SDT) highlights three dimensions to parenting – Autonomy, Involvement and Structure.

Let’s take a look at these dimensions and break them down into behavior patterns that will help children become lifelong learners:

1. Autonomy

In the simplest sense, autonomy is supporting an individual’s freedom to act independently. It steers away from mere compliance and encourages dialogue. Parents who showcase autonomy build an environment that supports conversations, negotiation within a structure. Autonomy does not mean leaving kids to make decisions on their own without any parental involvement.

What does autonomy look like? 

a. Ok, I am listening

In school, I started multiple hobbies and quit most. As a child trying to explore opportunities, my parents encouraged a trial period for hobbies. They had open conversations about my decision to quit and actively listened to reasons. Meanwhile, I picked a hobby that I loved and built that over the years. This culture of open dialogues built an environment that was nourishing and nurturing. Today I learn and adapt my learning path because of the encouraging open dialogues I had as a child. 

b. What would you pick?

I taught kindergarten a decade ago and was floored by a young child who articulated how she was feeling and based on that, the activity she wanted to choose. She was 4 at the time and I was teaching in a public school that was serving a low income community. 

What was different in this child’s environment? I went back to her parents and asked them to elaborate on her typical day. The answer was simple – After school, the child was empowered to create her own schedule with options like art, cycling or free and unstructured play and she had to articulate the ‘why’. She built her day through curiosity and conscious choice

The key is to give children options, of course age appropriate, the space to think and articulate their reasons behind the choices. 

2. Involvement

I define parental involvement as an invisible dotted-line thought bubble around the child which is constant. I say invisible because it’s subconsciously present even if the parent is not. A dotted line to represent flexibility and adaptability. What does parental involvement look like? 

a. What, Why and How

An involved parent is a responsive parent. Through my observations, parents who asked questions and provided a nest for difficult conversations built competency and connectedness.

A simple example would be taking a gap year. How can one react with the right motive without biases and preconceived notions? While certain choices might not be right, it’s vital to walk and talk through decisions. 

b. I understand..but…

Children thrive on validations. Rationalizing with younger children begins with validation, demonstrating appropriate behavior and speaking about possible consequences. A parent who creates space for listening before responding will encourage the same behavior in the child. A lifelong learner builds their own path through experiences and failures. Children learn to articulate behavior and regulate their emotions when they are given opportunities to explore feelings freely at home. 

3. Structure

Structure is a widely discussed topic and has many variations. In simple words, structure is communication of boundaries and circumstances through the lens of safety and growth. The most challenging part of structure is the balance. What does structure look like for learning?

a. This might lead to….because

It’s key to define structure from a lens of safety. What sounds better – ‘Because I say so’ or ‘Because this might lead to’. One comes from a control lens and the second is care. If we are able to rationalize and democratize the structure, children will learn to make decisions with a cause and effect. Lifelong learners are thoughtful and analytical of their choices and that begins at home. 

b. Let’s pause and talk about this…

There is absolutely no argument that those who love learning also love the space to think, articulate and apply. I remember the most meaningful conversations as a child came after a pause and continue pattern. Pause is key in the structure dimension because it builds self-awareness, encourages reflection and regulation. 

I believe parents play a vital part in our learning journeys. I always call my parents ‘unicorns’ of their generations. The focus at home has always been conversations, encouragement to experiment and no shame in failing. 

Unlearning Thought

What did your parents do that encouraged you to be a lifelong learner?