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Don’t Push the River: Autonomy and Healthy Development

written by Eleanor Chin 4 December 2008

Eleanor Chin, MAPP '08, is a life and executive coach. Founder and President of Clarity Partners Coaching and Consulting, she works with institutional and individual clients to support them as they navigate change, create inclusive and dynamic systems, and leverage strategic strengths for growth, learning and competitive advantage. Full bio.

Eleanor's past articles are here.

December is a time of holiday preparations. For many parents of high school seniors, it’s also the time for a different ritual— finishing college applications and waiting for decisions. Even though that time was a few years ago for our family, December still reminds me to have empathy for families going through this special phase of growth.

(This is Part One of a Three-Part Series on Autonomy-Supportive Parenting)


Don't Push the River

Don’t Push the River


One Parent’s View of Leaving the Nest

Female bluebird leaving birdhouseWhether the end of high school signals college, work, military service or something else, it often marks the end of one stage and the beginning of another—leaving the “nest.”So here’s my parental confession. Throughout most of our daughter’s last year in high school, I felt as if my husband and I were cramming for a test. It seemed that time was running short to jam all of the necessary life values and skills into her so that she could function independently. Had we taught her all that she would need to make good judgments and stay safe? What important lessons did she need in the last year of being under our wings? Was it too late? Yikes!I got through that year by taking deep breaths and reciting the mantra: “Don’t push the river. It will flow by itself.”

Understanding Autonomy

Like most parents, my concern was motivated by good intentions and directed by a lack of information about the natural processes of adolescence. Yes, I confess I thought it was my job as a parent to give my child independence. As if it’s something we parents can bestow. Little did I realize that autonomy is inevitable like learning to walk—unstoppable by either parent or child.

What is autonomy, why is it so important and how does it develop? Edward Deci, one of the pioneers in research about autonomy, self-determination and self-motivation says that autonomy is acting “in accord with one’s self—it means feeling free and volitional in one’s actions” (1995).

Other researchers have found some “trends” about autonomy: 1) it develops naturally, 2) it’s a basic human need, and 3) it provides an element of satisfaction with life.

How is this knowledge helpful to parents? When seen through the lens of normal developmental processes, an adolescent’s drive to separate from parents may seem less like a personalized battle, and more like the natural order of things. For example, recently a friend’s son decided that he no longer needed his parents to drive him to school. Despite the strident tone of his delivery, it’s likely that he was mainly motivated by a need to assert his independence. Remembering this can take the sting out of what sometimes feels like outright rejection.

Healthy Autonomy, Healthy Behavior

Psychologists Brown and Ryan’s studies of self-determination theory (2004) show that children’s social behavior naturally becomes more self-regulated as they grow. Autonomy is not only a naturally occurring part of growing up, but a sign of healthy development.

In studies of children’s abilities to manage their own behavior at school, Brown and Ryan found that autonomy and a greater ability to self-regulate is often associated with greater pleasure and interest in studies, resulting in the ability to handle stresses more effectively—all critical components of healthy and authentic independence.

Autonomy-Supportive Parenting

Lest you think that I am advocating a hands-off approach to parenting adolescents, fear not: I have not lost my mind. Parents still need to monitor and guide the behavior of adolescents.

The good news is that most children will develop into independent beings naturally. Of course there are real differences in maturation rates, capabilities and environmental influences, so that the timing of autonomy development looks different for different people. As parents, we need to be tolerant of our children’s particular rates of development.

Balancing actOne of the major tasks of parenting is the constant balancing act between protection and caretaking on the one hand, and support for increasing autonomy and resilience on the other. Parents are most effective when they are autonomy-supportive.

There’s no formula for how much protection and how much letting go constitutes autonomy-supportive parenting. It’s different for each emerging adult and parent. Constant awareness that this is a natural process can act as a compass. Each situation requires a different balance, and autonomy must be tempered with responsibility. No wonder parenting is such a hard job.

Here are just a few suggestions about how to be autonomy-supportive parents:

  • Provide opportunities for children to experience success on their own terms to build real competence.
  • Teach them to develop empathy for others.
  • Help them build a network of supportive adults—teachers, coaches, family members.
  • Support them in learning to notice, name and regulate their emotions.

It’s a difficult channel to navigate. No parent is perfect! One guideline supported by research is to think of autonomy as nourishment. Children and adults need it to thrive.

Just remember the mantra: “Don’t push the river, it will flow by itself.”


Parts 2 and 3 of this series:

Chin, E. (2009). Development of Self-Motivation: Why Pleasing Parents Too Much Can be Bad for Your Health. Positive Psychology News.

Chin, E. (2009). A Parent’s Love: Bonding or Binding? Positive Psychology News.


Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-80.

Bandura, A., Caprana, G., Barbaranelli, C., Gerbino, M., Pastorelli, C., (2003). Role of affective self-regulatory efficacy in diverse spheres of psychosocial functioning. Child Development, 74(3). Society for Research in Child Development, Inc.

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In Linley, P.A. & Joseph, S., (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice 105-124. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Deci, E.L. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. eds. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jolliffe, D. & Farrington, D.P. (2006). Development and validation of the basic empathy scale. Journal of Adolescence, 29,(4), 589-611.

Maddux, J. E. (2002). Self-efficacy: The power of believing you can. In Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. 277-287. New York: Oxford University Press.

Meisels, S., Atkins-Burnett, S. & Nicholson, J. (1996). Assessment of social competence, adaptive behaviors and approaches to learning with young children. National Center for Education Statistics Working Paper 96-18. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Owens, T. (1993). Accentuate the positive—and the negative: Rethinking the use of self-esteem, self-deprecation and self-confidence. Social Psychology Quarterly, 56(4), 288-299.



Leaving the nest – http://www.swinarskiphotography.com/images/Female-Blue-Bird-leaving-he.jpg

Don’t push the river – courtesy of muffinman71xx

Phone line tightrope by Michael Sokolis – http://www.lasplash.com/uploads/1/phoneline-copy.gif

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Tamar Chansky 4 December 2008 - 8:41 pm

Eleanor, thanks for this great post. I work with anxious parents every day in my practice and will definitely make use of these ideas, e.g., describing their daily experience as the pressure of cramming for a test (because the parents I see, and many parents these days, feel that “this is our last chance” pressure to prepare their kids even in elementary school) — and especially the mantra: don’t push the river, it will flow by itself.

Hey, my older daughter is a sophomore in high school, I think I’ll make use of these ideas myself!

Eleanor Chin 5 December 2008 - 9:59 am

Thanks, Tamar! I’m excited to hear that you work with parents. As parents ourselves and helping professionals, we can probably both attest to the need for more positive psychology tools for parents. I’ve found that autonomy, self-determination and self motivation are important and under-utilized developmental concepts for parents to grasp. Do you do much with these concepts in your work with parents?

It’s great to discover your work. I’ll be continuing this series next month with “Why Obeying Your Parents Can Be Bad for Your Health” and look forward to continuing the dialogue. Best, Eleanor

Senia Maymin 8 December 2008 - 8:39 pm

Pushing the river, Eleanor!

Great feeling to these words. It’s like the words already describe the meaning.

Also, this article is one of the most beautiful images we’ve ever had on this site!


Marisa 30 November 2009 - 10:31 pm

Hi Eleanor,

As a 22 year old student, I am only just beginning to realize the difficulties parents have in raising adolescents! I think your article gives some really good advice to parents in how to be supportive without stepping over the line. I agree that every child is different and will develop their sense of independence at their own rate. So if an adolescent is not pushing for independence and autonomy, and in fact shying away from it, do you think it would beneficial to push for the child to become more independent? Or do you think that it will come naturally, and so shouldn’t be forced prematurely?



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