Why “Goldilocks” parenting helps build executive function skills

If your child has ever complained to you about having too little milk in a glass (“But I’m thirsty!”) and then after you added more, complained that it was too much (“I can’t finish it all!”), you know how challenging it can be to find the right balance in parenting. It’s like how Goldilocks wanted her porridge to be in the fairy tale. Not too hot, not too cold, but “just right.”

Increasingly, researchers are discovering that “just right” is an important concept for how we parent. It has to do with how kids develop executive function.

Executive function is the “air traffic control system” of the brain. It helps kids focus, remember rules, resist temptation, and think flexibly. The way we parent can affect how kids’ executive function skills develop.

When kids are trying to accomplish a goal, like finish a puzzle or do homework, parents tend to have one of three different parenting styles.

  1. Laissez-faire. Parents let kids figure things out on their own, even if it means kids struggle and don’t accomplish the goal. These parents are laid-back, sometimes to the point of not being present enough. For example, a laissez-faire parent might be on his smartphone while his child works on homework.

  2. Controlling. Parents want kids to accomplish goals correctly and quickly, even if it means they end up doing most of the work for their kids. Controlling parents often seem rushed. They may tell their child the correct answer to a homework problem, or even reach across the table and do it themselves, while the child looks on.

  3. Autonomy-supportive. Parents let kids accomplish the task at her own pace, and step in to help only as needed. They’re watchful and sensitive to their kids’ need for help, but will allow them to feel challenged. For instance, when a child does a puzzle, the autonomy-supportive parent may give hints or gently nudge the correct puzzle piece closer to the child, until the child sees and grabs the piece, and feels, “I did it!”

My colleagues and I have done a lot of research around parenting styles and executive function. Our work has focused on kids in preschool and kindergarten.

In one study, we had a mom or dad work together with their child on a challenging puzzle. We observed how they interacted, and then, at a later time, measured the kids’ executive function skills. So far, here’s what we’ve found:

  • Moms who practice autonomy-supportive parenting with 1-year-olds end up with kids who have better executive function skills at ages 2, 3 and 5.

  • Dads who are more autonomy-supportive have children with better executive function skills at ages 3 and 5.

  • Moms and dads who have good executive function skills themselves tend to be more autonomy-supportive in their parenting.

The bottom line from our research is that autonomy-supportive parenting seems to be the best for kids’ executive function. We think that’s because when children feel empowered in a supportive environment, they are more likely to engage in reflection, the key to thinking before acting.

Autonomy-supportive parenting works because it’s “just right.” It balances being patient and stepping back (laissez-faire) with being helpful and involved (controlling). When children master challenging tasks with this “just right” level of support from parents, they develop autonomy. This gives them a sense of personal agency (“I did it!”) and self-efficacy (“I’m good at figuring things out even if they are hard at first”).

What does this mean for you as a parent?

First, try to be mindful of how you parent. It’s not always easy to know when you’re helping too much or too little. However, you can always ask yourself “is this something my child could do on his own without help?” If so, you may want to try stepping back.

Simply being mindful of the “just right” level of support can make a big difference. It can help you know when it’s OK to let your child fail at a task.

Second, consider doing things to work on your own executive function skills. Doing so can make you a better parent. Start with small things. For instance, try to take time for yourself to recharge, so you don’t get overwhelmed. You can also earn and practice self-calming techniques.

Most importantly, if you’re in the heat of the moment with your child, and need a reminder, think of Goldilocks. Not too little, not too much, but just right.

Interested in more research on executive function? Read about “hot and cool” executive functions. You may also want to learn about the connection between ADHD and executive function.


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