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Give your kids more autonomy in 2020, says DMV-based author and journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis

From strengthening your child’s independence to altering general behaviors, here are several tips your family should consider as we enter the new year.

It’s officially 2020, a new year and a new decade. And while many people set resolutions surrounding self-care and personal goals, most parents tend to think about their family as a whole, and how they can grow together throughout the year.

Setting goals as a family is important, yet it can often be challenging to pick realistic objectives for everyone to follow. To better prepare you for the year ahead, we chatted with Maryland-based journalist and author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever—And What to Do About It, Katherine Reynolds Lewis. 

Here, Lewis shares a few ways parents can practice goal setting with their kids, encourage autonomy and better understand one another in the new year.

In your book you talk about the lack of autonomy kids have right now, compared to 20 to 30 years ago. How does this general trend affect a family dynamic, as well as a child’s development?
Because children have less independence and autonomy, parents do a lot more work. Frankly, it’s harder and more exhausting for parent nowadays as compared with 20 or 30 years ago. We do more for our children, we monitor them and manage them more, and all that takes a lot of time and energy. As a result, children tend to be more entitled, more anxious and more resentful of parents. They can become entitled because the household revolves around them and their activities, without much demand that they be flexible for other family members’ needs. They may become fearful and anxious because they never learn how to cope on their own or how to do simple tasks like walk to school, navigate public transportation or buy items at the store independently. Many children are raised with a message that the world is dangerous, without being taught how to manage the real risks in the world.

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What are some achievable resolutions families can make together for the new year?
It really depends on your goals. I think it’s achievable to have a weekly family-fun outing to do something together, or to introduce weekly family meetings and special time. Another resolution could be to take responsibility for losing our temper or making mistakes—but be sure that adults, as well as children, are willing to apologize and make amends. You might decide to do something active together once a week or to try a new activity together. Whatever encourages closeness and risk taking, in a safe setting, will help lessen everyone’s anxiety and will build bonds. 

With young kids, ask them what goals they have, and help them break them down into smaller, measurable steps. Help them focus on the things within their control. They shouldn’t make a goal like, “To get better at soccer,” because that’s not measurable. Instead, they could commit to practicing 10 minutes a day for three days a week, and track their progress. I don’t love the word resolution because it implies you’re going to stop doing something or begin doing something, without exception or slip-up. It’s human nature to make mistakes and to slip back when reaching toward a goal. When you’re working toward a goal, you may go sideways or backwards and still be on the path. So when discussing goals or resolutions with kids, make sure to stress that nobody is perfect and mistakes are our chance to learn what works and what doesn’t work for them.

Say a family has a goal to change the behavioral dynamic in 2020. What are a few ways that they can do that?
The most important foundation for every family is strong relationships: between the parents, with each child and among the children. Building relationships and family connection is always a good first step to improving the behavioral dynamic and increasing cooperation from children. 

I would recommend starting with a discussion with the children. Invite the kids to share what they think works well in the family and what they think could be improved. You may find they are remarkably insightful. They may ask for more privileges and freedom, which I always recommend coupling with responsibilities. Children should gain freedom when they demonstrate responsibility. My kids begged for a dog, and we mutually came up with an agreement that if they could keep the entryway free of shoes, backpacks and other clutter for 90 days, they would be ready for a puppy. After all, puppies chew up loose belongings. They did, and agreed to do their share of dog walks and feeding, and we are now proud dog owners. 

Two wonderful strategies to build closeness and cooperation in family are to introduce special time and family meetings, both of which I learned at the Parent Encouragement Program. Special time is designated on the calendar, one child and one adult, engaging in an interactive activity that the child chooses. (No screens allowed!) We put it on the calendar and honor it just like any other commitment we have—we don’t allow interruptions from phone calls, household tasks or other family members. For a young child, it could be just 10 or 15 minutes at a time, whereas for a teenager, you might have 45 or 60 minutes of special time. Aim for daily special time but settle for weekly if your schedule is too busy. 

Family meetings are where we share appreciations for something specific each family member has done in the previous week. It’s a wonderful way to build a culture of gratitude in the family and to fight back on that entitlement problem. The next step is discussing old business and new business. This is where we negotiate agreements over rules and limits: screen time, bed time, mornings, homework, etc. Or we renegotiate agreements that aren’t working—always with consequences attached if people break the agreement. We try a new agreement for a week and then assess how it’s working, and tweak if needed.

Talk about key ways in which parents can instill self-discipline, which you discuss in your book, throughout the new year?
The most important thing we can do with our kids is to help them anticipate challenges and assess what choices they’ll make, and then after the situation occurs, to help them process and understand what happened, and how it went, which helps them prepare for the next similar challenge. This is the core of parenting, and it happens over and over. By understanding their own impact—on academics, teacher relationships, friendships, hobbies, staying organized, managing their emotions—they can make better choices in the future. Our children’s job is to understand themselves, to steadily gain more control over their behavior, thoughts and emotions, to discover their interests and skills, and how they will contribute them to the world. Our job is to support them in that process through reflective listening, modeling self-control, nurturing relationships and simple limits and family rules that are negotiated as a family. As our children gain more self-discipline, they gain more freedom and the limits and rules become broader. 

As a mother, what are your resolutions or goals for your family in the new year?
Because of this interview, my family decided we’re going to refrain from yelling or cursing, and if someone messes up, they’ll put $1 in a jar that we give to charity at the end of each quarter. Whoever curses or yells the least will be able to choose which charity gets the money. We also decided that we’re going to assume good intentions when interacting with each other, instead of jumping to negative conclusions about what another family member meant. And we have a goal to eat four servings of fruits and vegetables every day. We wanted to pick an achievable goal, and if we go over four servings we can celebrate our overachievement.  

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