Parent workshop addresses importance of choice, autonomy

More than 20 parents gathered in the Wilton Library’s Rimer Room for the fourth weekly installment of psychologist Susan Bauerfeld’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk workshop on Monday, Nov. 21.

Bauerfeld is a licensed clinical psychologist, ADHD coach and parenting consultant with a private practice on Danbury Road in Wilton.

The six-week workshop teaches parents valuable relationship skills geared toward parent-and-child relationships. During the classes, exercises are used to increase understanding of the adverse impact of many of default parenting styles, and parents learn alternative, more effective methods of interacting with their children through lessons, role-play and practice.

During the Nov. 21 class, parents learned about what Bauerfeld called “the power of choice.”

Bauerfeld said she recently attended the Power of the Brain Conference, where speakers talked about motivation, learning and how to engage students — particularly in civic engagement.

“There was a lot of discussion about this power of choice — much in the way that we’re talking about it here. When you give a child a choice, they’re much more likely to be engaged,” she said.

An example of giving children a choice that was shared at the conference, Bauerfeld said, was when students were offered five worksheets and asked to pick the one that had “just the right amount of challenge for them.”

The result, Bauerfeld said, was that “the kids happily engaged with those worksheets because they had a choice.”


The sense of self-governance or “the ability to tell yourself what to do in any given situation” is known as autonomy, said Bauerfeld.

At the Power of the Brain Conference, Bauerfeld said, she learned that “what employers are looking for are people who can do self-directed learning.”

“People who are critical thinkers, people who can collaboratively problem-solve — all things that we’re encouraging you to do as parents in this class,” she said.

“You can go really far in teaching kids the skills that employers are looking for that have nothing to do with reading and writing.”

On a list presented at the conference of skills Fortune 500 companies are looking for, Bauerfeld said, reading and writing were at the bottom.

The top skills include critical thinking, resilience, ability to self-direct — “this is what we’re talking about in autonomy,” she said.

Autonomy is also the freedom of will, the ability to feel separate, responsible, capable, and competent on your own, said Bauerfeld.

“A lot of the way we’re teaching kids today is the disease of acquiescence,” she said.

“The student we’re rewarding right now is the one who just sits there, does what they’re told, doesn’t talk back, doesn’t question — doesn’t do anything, and then we wonder why they’re floundering when they’re out on their own.”

Bauerfeld said “being able to trust in our own growing power as a child” is “really important,” and that’s where autonomy comes in.

When autonomy is fostered, Bauerfeld said, children are able to respect and openly discuss individual differences, feel secure in their own bodies and attempt to solve problems.

“These are really important things for society,” said Bauerfeld, who then noted a number of factors that interfere with autonomy.

One factor is convenience and time pressure — when a parent does something for a child because the child is struggling, and the parent and/or child “doesn’t have time” to deal with it.

Another is over-connection — when parents see their children’s failures as their own.

When parents interpret their child’s mistakes as their own, Bauerfeld said, “then it’s more challenging for [the child] to make mistakes, and it’s more challenging to use those mistakes as opportunities for learning.”

Other ways parents can interfere with autonomy include:

  • Lagging skills with self-restraint, self-control and frustration tolerance.

  • Needing to be needed.

  • Not knowing what else to do.

  • Underestimating and/or abusing the power and influence that adults have over children.

  • The idea that parents can give or create self-esteem.

“Many of the ways we deal with children do not communicate to them that we believe they are capable and/or responsible,” said Bauerfeld.

“When one person takes over for another, the power becomes unbalanced.”

There are a number of ways in which parents can undermine autonomy, said Bauerfeld, including:

  • Indulging.

  • Bombarding children with questions.

  • Answering with too much information.

  • Using physical force.

  • Shielding children from disappointment.

  • Preventing and helping their children avoid failure experiences.

These behaviors not only undermine autonomy, said Bauerfeld, they also encourage dependence, communicate that parents believe their children are incapable, and lead to feelings of anger, resentment, helplessness, frustration, and worthlessness.

Most of all, they just “aren’t helpful,” said Bauerfeld.

Instead, she said, parents should:

  • Acknowledge feelings, which helps children see that they may feel differently and that’s OK.

  • Give children a choice, which shows that you see them as capable of making responsible decisions.

  • Have their children describe problems, which motivates them to tell themselves what to do.

Bauerfeld said the following parental skills encourage autonomy in children and “recognize [their] child’s accomplishments in their own right”:

  • Respect when children struggle.

  • Give children information that can help them find answers and solutions on their own.

  • Limit questions.

  • Don’t rush to answer.

  • Encourage the use of resources outside the home.

  • Keep hope alive — don’t prepare for disappointment.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, sponsored by the Wilton Youth Council, runs through Dec. 5. Information: , 203-762-3950.

To learn more about Bauerfeld, visit