Growing Girl Power by Developing a Sense of Agency
It’s always funny to me when I see folks with dogs pulling their leash while the dog stubbornly sprawls across the sidewalk determined to go in the opposite direction. Toddlers lay on the ground refusing to budge. The grownup says, “Okay bye, I’m leaving!” and the toddler fears they are being abandoned and complies or cries louder. Power dynamics with tweens can feel very similar. The more we tug on the leash, the more they resist. No one wants to be told what to do. Our body is our compass and when we truly listen it guides us in the right direction. Unfortunately, kids are rarely given the autonomy to be in control of the decisions that affect them so they rarely experience a sense of agency.
At school and at home, children are well-versed in compliance. They are often over-scheduled and they constantly follow directions given to them from adults in their life. We have to make the most out of the few precious unscheduled hours we have with our children to give them a sense of autonomy. Our goal is to provide enough structure to give our kids the tools that empower them to make healthy choices. We want to minimize the push and pull that takes place in the typical tug of war between tweens and their grownups.
Here are five ways to develop a sense of agency in our kids.
They Know Where to Go.
Don’t give them directions. Dr. Michaeleen Doucleff, the author of, “Hunt, Gather, Parent” observed different cultures and found that in American culture we give our kids up to 100 directions per hour! In contrast, she observed parents in a rural African village that gave three directions in an hour. After I heard this, I couldn’t help but notice how often I tell our daughter what to do and how to do it!
Set them Free.
Try to underschedule your kids and then give them a chance to be in charge of their schedule. The word “underschedule” isn’t even in the dictionary because we don’t use it often enough. Having unstructured time builds executive functioning.
No Food Fights!
Offer a wide variety of foods and let them choose what they want to eat. The art of listening to our body takes practice and kids don’t get to practice if they are told what they have to eat. Somedays, the choices they make might be unbalanced but over the course of the week, it will probably even out. Food is such a sensitive topic fraught with differing expert opinions. It doesn’t have to be. Food can be fun!
Let them Make Mistakes.
This week, we let our daughter make dinner for us. I left the kitchen and went upstairs so I wouldn’t be tempted to help her. She burned the crust and felt disappointed but the rest of the pizza tasted delicious. She made quiche for the second dinner. This time she paid close attention to the crust. She even carefully covered the edges of the crust with aluminum foil. On her way to the oven, she was being so careful not to disturb the foil, she spilled some of the egg mixture out of the pie tin. It wasn’t a big deal. Her quiche was absolutely amazing and she was so proud of herself.
Seek Solo Walks
Kids love the classic outdoor education activity – the “solo walk”. The educator lays out inspiring cards with quotes and the kids hike “alone” following the cards. My students often tell me that they wish the walk was longer when we do this at camp. Finding opportunities for our children to “walk solo” can be tricky in San Francisco where we worry about traffic and crime. We can still find ways though. Our daughter’s friend walked over to our house by herself the other day. Fifth graders at my daughter’s school are allowed to walk home alone if their parents approve. Some parents send their kids to the store across the street to run an errand. My daughter and I have been tag teaming the farmer’s market. She goes to one vender to buy stuff while I buy something else. My friend said her 11-year-old daughter has been hopping on the Muni bus with her older brother for short outings and that taste of freedom has been so empowering in contrast to being in lockdown for months. Decide what is reasonably safe and let them go solo!