Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy in Children

Why are children today so easily driven to distractions such as social media? How can you teach competence, relatedness, and autonomy to children?

In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal discusses how to raise indistractable children. He says that it’s not the technology’s fault for distracting children—distractions are caused by internal discomfort. That’s why it’s important to raise children with autonomy, competence, and relatedness so they’ll be ready to take on their adult years.

Keep reading to learn how to raise children to become indistractable.

Understand and Reduce Internal Triggers

The first part of teaching your child to be indistractable is figuring out what their internal triggers are and how to reduce them. Like adults, children are usually driven to distraction by internal discomfort. Often, their discomfort will be related to one of the three human psychological needs:

  • Autonomy: control over ourselves and our choices
  • Competence: learning, improving, growing, and mastering different skills 
  • Relatedness: feeling that we’re important to others, and others are important to us

When you or your children are lacking in any of these three needs, you’ll feel restlessness, anxiety, hopelessness, or depression—all feelings that can trigger distraction and unhealthy habits such as too much gaming, too much time on social media, and so on. 

By ensuring that your children have opportunities to gain autonomy, competence, and relatedness, you can help them better balance their online and real-world lives. 

Create More Opportunities for Autonomy in Children

Many parents feel that they need to plan out their children’s days and enforce strict rules around technology to prevent distraction—however, you should be loosening your control and granting more opportunities for autonomy in children.  

Studies have found that children may actually lose the ability to control their attention when they’re constantly managed by adults. If you look at American schools you’ll notice that students are managed at every moment of the day—their homework needs to be done a certain way, everything has a due date, their movement is dictated by bells, they’re punished with detention, and so on. 

  • Surveys show that American teens are under 10 times more restrictions than most adults, and under two times more restrictions than Marines and convicts. 

Many children struggle with distraction in school and when doing schoolwork because they don’t have enough autonomy to feel motivated or interested. They escape to places where they can feel a sense of autonomy, such as in the creativity of social media or the world-building of video games. The problem isn’t technology. The problem is the alternative to technology—an environment devoid of autonomy that we adults have created. Ironically, many parents respond to their children spending too much time online by imposing more rules. This further restricts the child’s autonomy, exacerbating the problem. Instead, discuss your child’s leisure time and use of technology in a way that supports their autonomy.  

Shortform Example: Support Age-Appropriate Autonomy 

Instead of dictating exactly how and when your child can use technology, help them set boundaries in a way that gives them options. 

  • For example, you might say, “You have the whole afternoon free, but I can only let you play on my iPad for one hour. Would you rather have that hour now, or later?” 

For teenagers who are a little better at setting boundaries, discuss the harmful effects of too much screen time so that they can make their own informed decisions about their device use. 

  • You can supplement this by inviting them to take part in non-tech activities with you, such as taking a walk or going to a museum. 

Create More Opportunities for Competence

The second way you can reduce your child’s internal discomfort is by ensuring that they have adequate opportunities to feel competent. This is your responsibility as a parent, because many children don’t develop feelings of competence in school. Feeling competent and experiencing growth in the classroom is harder than ever, especially with the rise of standardized testing. This affects many types of children:

  • Children who are strong in some subjects and weak in others must focus more on improving their shortcomings than celebrating their achievements. 
  • Creative children don’t receive recognition for their talents or support in developing them. 
  • Children develop at vastly different rates, but standardized tests don’t take variable development into account. 

In these environments, only children who develop quickly and in the “right” ways can feel competent. Students who don’t meet the standard, despite their work, are soon convinced that competence isn’t possible for them, and they lose motivation and interest in school. They escape to apps, games, and websites where they do feel a sense of growth and accomplishment. This is why moving up between levels, getting likes, and gaining followers can be so addictive—it feels like a form of achievement. 

Shortform Example: Create Feelings of Competence

You likely can’t change the testing system in your child’s school, but you can help your child find activities that allow them to feel a sense of achievement and progress. 

  • For example, you can teach your child to cook, find a class or workshop for your child who likes to paint, encourage your child to sign up for a challenge aligned with their interests like writing contests, or help them find volunteer work that interests them and develops their skills. 

(Shortform note: Read our summary of The Power of Moments to learn different ways to show your children progress they’ve made and develop their feelings of competence.)

Create More Opportunities for Relatedness

Lastly, make sure that you’re allowing your children to balance their online interactions with unstructured, face-to-face time with their peers. Children’s ability to join in “spontaneous play” is seriously restricted these days. You’ll hardly ever see a group of children playing outside together or roaming the neighborhood to see what fun there is to be had. This is largely due to anxious parenting—children are kept close to home so they don’t get hurt or into trouble. As a result, many children and teens spend a lot of their free time at home, connecting with others virtually through games or the Internet. 

In interacting with people online, children can easily pick and choose whom they wish to communicate with or which communities they want to be part of—meaning they aren’t learning the essential skill of getting along with different types of people. 

  • Interestingly, this means that too much socializing online is both a cause and a consequence of not being able to connect with others in real life. 

On the other hand, online communities can be very positive, especially for children who feel isolated at school or other areas of their lives. They can talk through their issues with people in these communities, and as many communities are based on common interests, they can find people with whom they identify. 

  • For example, the website Reddit has communities for everything from baking, to learning guitar, to managing chronic diseases, to learning about history. 

While some time interacting online is positive, encourage your children to have face-to-face playtime with their peers. This might look like meeting up to walk around the mall, having classmates over for an afternoon of playing in the yard, or encouraging your child to join in pickup games of basketball after school. These real-life environments counterbalance time online and teach children how to interact with others. 

Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy in Children

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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