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Parenting for Agency

How to bring up resilient children in a turbulent world.

Key points

  • Parenting for agency is even more important in unpredictable and chaotic times.
  • Highly engaged parenting is better than highly controlling parenting.
  • Reflecting on your default parenting style can help you become a better parent.

It’s always been tough to be a parent, but in today’s dynamic and turbulent times, it can feel particularly hard.

From the pandemic to climate change, from technological disruption to economic instability, parents are understandably struggling to think about how to best equip their children for a world that never stands still.

Although there are a variety of strategies to help navigate these challenges, including embracing change positively rather than as a threat, as we’ve discussed before, one significant gift we can give the next generation is a sense of agency in the face of change or even chaos.

A sense of empowerment can give young people the confidence to navigate the complexities of modern society rather than be left feeling buffeted by them.

How do parents create agency?

Psychological research on parenting has identified two well-researched dimensions. The first is the level of control you exert as a parent. This is about how prescriptive and authoritarian you are in your parenting style, the enforcement of demands and rules, and the tendency to directly control behaviour rather than letting the child lead.

The second dimension looks at the level of engagement you have with your child. It’s about how involved and interested you are, the level of emotional availability, warmth, and responsiveness that you show.

Take the example of my parents. I come from a traditional Indian family where both my mum and dad would score highly on engagement, talking to me endlessly about career options, supporting and guiding me through life. However, on the control axis (defying some stereotypes of Asian parents), they were very low. So, whilst they wanted me to become a traditional doctor, when I said I wanted to study this new-fangled subject called psychology, they helped me do it.

You can map where you fit as a parent against these two dimensions on the model below. As you can see, my parents fit in the bottom right quadrant of high engagement, low control:

 Gurnek Bains
Parental control and engagement model.
Source: Gurnek Bains

Now as I look back, I can see this was a real contrast to some of my peers. One of my friends wanted to do psychology, but his parents pushed him into medicine. The result? He ended up dropping out. On the model above, his parents would fit in the top right quadrant of high control and high engagement. This parenting style can result in either rebellion or dependency as kids haven’t been given the opportunity to know how to find their own way in the world.

What should I be doing as a parent?

Of course, it’s important not to be overly simplistic or judgemental here. In certain circumstances, high levels of control may also lead to security and prevent your child from making important mistakes.

There is a consensus in the research that one of the worst places to be in terms of promoting agency is low engagement and high control. This is a kind of distant authoritarianism—the rules are there, but the parent doesn’t engage emotionally or help the child navigate or understand them. This is the stereotypical cold aristocratic family that can lead to children feeling a sense of distance from their parents. It can also result in rebellion or under-confident compliance.

The final quadrant, low engagement and low control, is the absent parent. In some circumstances, it can lead to some agency as a child has to take charge in the absence of anyone else doing it for them, but it is unlikely to nurture confidence or security or the ability to reach out to others. Security is often the foundation of agency, so often the best this style can produce is a kind of independent and potentially not fully secure agency.

Are there any tips?

It's worth remembering that different situations require different approaches and the style parents show can be very dependent on the age of the child and context. But it is helpful to reflect on what quadrant appears to be your default and question whether that’s working for you and your child.

None of this is easy. It’s a skill that needs developing and often requires you to step back from your own parenting that you may have had. I am still figuring it out with my children, and they are in university now.

When the world was a more stable, predictable, and ordered place, there may have been more leeway to parent in different ways. Telling your kids what to do and how to do it works better in a stable, unchanging world. But in today’s world, greater control needs to be given to those navigating, and parenting for agency is more important than ever. It’s not just a gift for your child—it probably has implications for the health of our relationships across our societies and nations, as well as how well our future leaders navigate these new global challenges.

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