By ROSHAN THIRAN and EVA CHRISTODOULOU
In a recent study we conducted, we tried to find out how important it is for parents to help their children develop their sense of agency.
Agency is the ability of children to act independently of what is happening around them, to be proactive and take the initiative to make choices for themselves and act according to these choices.
As a follow up to that, we conducted an in-depth survey asking parents a series of questions as part of this study. One of the questions we asked was: “Do you take any steps to ensure your child develops into an independent individual?”
For this question, 3.5 per cent of respondents answered with a clear no, and an additional 5.3 per cent of respondents answered along the lines of ‘not yet,’ ‘not really,’ ‘not enough,’ ‘haven’t thought about it,’ and ‘need to work on it.’ One per cent of respondents also mentioned that they ‘only believed in laissez faire.’
The majority of the respondents answered ‘yes’ and cited ‘getting their kids to do chores’ as the best way to do so (16.8 per cent), or ‘take up responsibility’ (13 per cent of responses), or ‘completing tasks’ (12 per cent of responses).
Their rationale is that chores, tasks, and some form of responsibility provides an avenue for the children to think on their own and conduct tasks independently.
Thirteen per cent of responses also revolved around the notion of letting children have their own opinions or being able to manage situations and make decisions on their own.
One of the respondents also mentioned in a phone interview that one of the ways she uses to ensure her children develop into independent individuals is to have her children (both between the ages of three and six) buy their own train tickets.
She would give them a certain amount of money and have them figure out how to buy the ticket, how much it costs, and which platform to take.
She believes this encourages her children to be unafraid to ask for help and develops their independence.
She also mentioned that she tries to expose them to a wide variety of situations, enabling them to navigate through them, and to try out new things and new experiences.
During conflict situations, she forces herself not step in and solve it for her children, so they don’t rely on the parent’s intervention to solve their problems.
The responses of those who responded with a ‘yes’ and how they were doing so are listed below:
|Steps taken||% of times cited|
|Take up responsibility||13|
|Own decision making / freedom of choice / independence / self-reliance||12|
|Completing / managing tasks on their own||12|
|Being there for them / giving love /spending time with them||5|
|Education / school||3.5|
|They all grew to be independent automatically / naturally||3|
|Allow them to make mistakes||3|
|Teamwork / group activities||2|
|Allow space / respect privacy||2|
|Guide and monitor not hand-hold||2|
|Relationships with others||1|
|Don’t give pocket money||1|
|Encourage them to recognise their feelings and talk about it||1|
|Importance of not using limiting words||1|
|Adopt a reward and consequence system||1|
|Help to compare and contrast their preferences||1|
|Learning through overcoming their failures and setbacks||1|
|Leading by example||1|
|Allow socialising space||1|
Why is developing a sense of agency crucial?
What we refer to as ‘agency,’ is a crucial element of a child’s development journey, and is something that starts from a very young age – from just a few months old.
Developing a sense of agency from a very young age is crucial for the development of well-rounded individuals. It contributes to one’s self esteem, identity, and well-being.
Having the opportunity to make choices and attempt various tasks by themselves, as well as taking on responsibilities, allows children to view themselves as independent, competent members of society.
Cultivating the belief that we are in control of things – that we can influence events – is an important trait to be developed at a young age in all children. This proactive personality is directly linked to career success (Seibert, Kraimer and Crant, 2001).
Agency is ideally developed between the ages of one and three according to Erikson’s developmental stage of autonomy vs. shame theory.
He explains, “the parents’ patience and encouragement helps foster autonomy in the child. Children at this age like to explore the world around them and they are constantly learning about their environment. … If caregivers encourage self-sufficient behaviour, toddlers develop a sense of autonomy ‒ a sense of being able to handle many problems on their own.
“But if caregivers demand too much too soon, refuse to let children perform tasks of which they are capable, or ridicule early attempts at self-sufficiency, children may instead develop shame and doubt about their ability to handle problems.”
The Australian National Quality Standard Professional Learning Programme has identified that “key learning dispositions such as curiosity, creativity and imagination, and learning processes such as inquiry, experimentation, and investigation all presuppose a degree of child-independence.”
Research has also found that children with a higher level of secure attachment relationships with their mothers have a higher level of social initiative (Chen, 2012).
On the other hand, children’s ambivalent attachment was positively related to shyness and social disinterest.
Developing a sense of agency in different age groups
When dealing with children between the ages of 1 and 5 years, these are some ways to help in the development of high agency:
- Supporting children to negotiate a resolution rather than solving it for them
- Providing opportunities for children to set goals for learning
- Providing opportunities for children to learn through co-researching with adults
- Offering choices of experiences based on what children are keen on learning
- Encouraging children to think about fairness within the service, local community, and outside world
- Considering a more democratic system of decision-making. For example, children could explore voting on relevant issues
- Supporting children’s voice within the community and connecting with community planning and consultation in all matters that affect children.
For school-going children, some of the ways to promote agency include:
- Promoting learning through leisure and play-based activities that children plan and are relevant to their interests and other learning
- Extending on peer support programmes and creating mentoring relationships
- Allowing children opportunities to assess and identify hazards as well as develop risk assessment strategies
- Supporting children to take on the responsibilities of arrival and departure including developing procedures for handling their belongings and greeting educators.
Zimmerman and Cleary (2006), believe that “[Agency] is influenced by the belief in one’s effectiveness in performing specific tasks, which is termed self-efficacy, as well as by one’s actual skill.”
Therefore, to develop agency in adolescents, one needs to focus on helping them gain confidence in their abilities to perform certain tasks well (tests, sports, manual tasks, etc.).
Personally, when I was 12, I was a horrible football player, not being able to even make my class team. During the long school holidays, I resolved to practice hard and become a top player in my school.
After a year of hard training, I made it to my school team and even had the opportunity to be coached by one of Malaysia’s legendary footballers, Mokhtar Dahari. Since then, my confidence ‒ not just in football but across many other areas ‒ has skyrocketed.
In our research this far, we found that agency is a key driver in decision making and a key leadership competence.
This proactive behaviour also leads to the ability to initiate and drive change, as well as the capability to initiate and drive a specific vision across small communities (what we call ‘building communities of love’).
Whilst it is great to see that many parents are already looking at developing this crucial quality in their children, it is imperative for all parents to cultivate it in their children.
Roshan Thiran is the founder and CEO of Leaderonomics whilst Eva Christodoulou is its head of research. They are both passionate about uncovering the science of building great leaders and will continue to spend countless hours in research to unravel this mystery so that everyone can learn to be a leader.
Prefer an e-mag reading experience? This article is also available in our 27th October, 2018 digital issue. Access our digital issues here.