What Is Autonomy Supportive Parenting?

Parent holding toddler, autonomy supported parenting

Your parenting style has a direct impact on how your child develops. How you model problem-solving, approach rule setting, as well as how you think about setting learning goals really matters. At the same time, few of us consciously choose and implement a parenting style, even though there are potential advantages to thinking through your parenting philosophy before being in a situation where you have to act on it.

In the 1960s, parenting researcher, Diana Baumrind identified four parenting styles: authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved, and authoritative.  This article focuses on a fifth style known as Autonomy Supportive Parenting, which is becoming a popular, practical, and helpful parenting style. In some ways, it captures the best of each of Baumrind’s four styles. This style is also very compatible with how teachers in Bright Horizons centers approach and interact with children. 

You may say to yourself, “Why have a parenting style? I don’t have time to think about my style—and I prefer to just make decisions on the fly, which usually works out pretty well.” Of course there are many situations where you have no choice but to make decisions on the fly—and that’s fine. But the process of, sometimes, thinking through a situation ahead of time is an important process. It helps us be more prepared the next time we have to make a quick parenting decision.          

As the name suggests, Autonomy Supportive Parenting helps children develop in ways that support their autonomy. Autonomy is typically defined as functioning independently without control by others; however, autonomy is not just about being independent. It is about parenting in a way that a child feels comfortable to be herself and is comfortable in her own body.  Children are given space to feel their feelings—and to understand rules. 

How to Implement Autonomy Supportive Parenting

  • Provide acceptance: children are loved and accepted unconditionally.  
  • Help your children feel competent: children, even babies, need to know they are having a positive impact on their world.
  • Support your children in achieving autonomy: your child has a sense of ownership and control, as opposed to feeling like he is being controlled by you.  
  • Treat your child like a unique person: every child is different and should be treated as unique and special.  

Key Components of Autonomy Supportive Parenting

  • Relatedness: parents strive to give children a sense of warmth, belonging, and connection, and try to understand their child’s perspective.
  • Structure: parents define and enforce limits, offering children some structure, and might make descriptive comments like: “There are toys all over the floor.” Then they also follow-up by providing a rationale for their rules and expectations, i.e.,  “We need to pick up the toys. Otherwise we will trip over them and someone might get hurt.”
  • Autonomy: process for engaging with our children; opposite of controlling.

Other specifics of Autonomy Supportive Parenting

  • Trust that development will unfold as expected—and that children want to cooperate and learn.
  • Take the child’s perspective, as often as possible. For example, “Before we go inside for a nap, would you like to put away the bikes or the sand toys?”
  • Plan for long-term goals. Give chances to practice and learn. For example, rather than “I can’t stand how messy your room is,” try focusing on the long-term. “I’d like you and I to work together to keep your room cleaner,” and then model the behavior you’d like to see in your child. You can even try breaking it down into smaller parts, so, “Tonight, I’d like you to put away the blocks, and I’ll take care of the books. Next week, you can do both the blocks and the books.”
  • Focus on the process of learning instead of performance. In other words, don’t expect your child to recite a new skill for others like counting to 20 before they are ready or comfortable. 
  • Remember: children learn from their mistakes instead of feeling bad about themselves. 

Autonomy Supportive Parenting pulls together principles from positive child development theory and practice and gives parents a “style” to reflect on when making decisions about child development and behavior.  

The principles of Autonomy Supportive Parenting can also be applied to yourself. Show compassion—and don’t be too hard on yourself as a parent when you make a mistake. You deserve to treat yourself well, and notice your strengths as you continue on your parenting journey.    

Bright Horizons Webinar: Getting to Know Your Parenting Style

What is your parenting style? Parenting experts from ZERO TO THREE and Bright Horizons discuss the impact of temperament and style on the parent-child relationship and will help you reflect on your own unique approach to parenting.

More on Parenting Styles

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About the Author
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Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
Parent holding toddler, autonomy supported parenting