Are You Raising an Outy?

What does internal vs. external locus of control have to do with coaching courage in my child? 

Firstly, the cool thing about locus of control is that it is one of those few areas where parenting really matters!  It seems that locus of control is not a genetically-driven trait, but more a nurtured and learned personality adaptation.  The goal in parenting is for children to develop an increasingly internal locus of control over time, combined with a flexibility to move along the continuum depending on life circumstances. 

Given that a child’s sense of diminished control over his/her environment is associated with psychological vulnerability to anxiety in particular, it is imperative that parents coach their kids to really listen to their own inner thoughts, values, feelings, and body.  The more children believe that they are active agents in the successes or failures of their lives—the more likely they are to take responsibility for their actions and develop the six types of courage.

Secondly, the natural evolution for a child is to move from more of an external locus of control (relying on his/her parents, peers, luck, or other external circumstances to guide decision-making and behavior) to an internal locus of control (whereby a child is more self-motivated, self-disciplined, and believes his/her behavior is guided by personal decisions and/or efforts).  It is our role as our child’s parent to coach them to take increasing responsibility in their lives.  We do our children a grave disservice if we continually protect them from the consequences of their own behavior, for example. 

We’re all likely to want to rescue our child at some point during their development: deliver a forgotten instrument to school, pick up their smelly laundry off their bedroom floor, or sell their raffle tickets for the baseball team fundraiser.  But, here’s the thing: if we continue to be our child’s rescuer, he/she will be less prepared or emotionally, physically, morally, spiritually, socially or intellectually equipped to handle the challenges on the path ahead. 

No matter how uncomfortable it is to seem like a bad parent for not delivering the instrument, how nauseating the discarded dirty sock smell, or how much your kid will not look good to his/her coach and peers for only selling one raffle ticket.  Being willing to endure your child’s tantrum, the disapproval of others, and (OMG, if you’re like me this one really smarts) not looking good as a parent, leads to the long-term gain of your child’s increasing independence, confidence, and in psychology-speak self-efficacy

Trust me, you want your child to get the lesson the first time!  Otherwise, you can be assured you’ll be learning it again and again and again until your child achieves the kind of independence and self-efficacy needed to grow up.  My son only had to lock himself out of the house once to remember his keys for the next two years.  My daughter only had to forget her instrument once for her to remember that violin for the rest of the year.  Every time I overfunction and pick up the stinky socks at the same time I’m telling my son to do so, I’m turning him into an outy!  Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem so motivated to pick them up himself because the invisible laundry fairy continues to magically do it for him?!

The startling news is that today’s college student favors an external locus of control.  In other words, we may be dropping the ball as parents in preparing our kids to be powerful agents in their future success. Children and college students surveyed between 1960-2002 show that young Americans (by an astounding 80% increase) are more likely now than in previous generations to believe that the circumstances of their lives are controlled by outside forces instead of the result of their own efforts. Yikes!

This research could also be indicative of a significant cultural shift (since 1960) in favor of an external locus of control.  Kids are developing more of an external locus of control, not as healthy development would have it, by becoming increasingly dependent on their parents and/or influenced by outside others, forces, or trends. What does that mean about our children?  According to the meta-analysis conducted by Twenge, Zhang, & Im (2004):
         The results are consistent with an alienation model positing increases in cynicism, individualism, and the self-serving bias. The implications are almost uniformly negative, as externality is correlated with poor school achievement, helplessness, ineffective stress management, decreased self-control, and depression.
Read my previous post Are You an Inny or an Outy? to learn more about internal vs. external locus of control.  My next post, next Sunday, “The Cheese Stands Alone” will give an example of how humbling and hard it can be to raise an inny!

What are you doing to boost your own or your child’s internal locus of control?
Chorpita, B. & Barlow, D. (1998). The development of anxiety: The role of control in the early environment. Psychological Bulletin, 124, (1­), 3-21.
Rotter, J.B. (1966). Generalized expectancies of internal versus external control of reinforcements. Psychological Monographs, 80, (whole no. 609). 
Twenge, J., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). Itʼs beyond my control: a cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, (3), 308-319. Retrieved from
Weems, C. & Silverman, W. (2006). An integrative model of control: Implications for understanding emotion regulation and dysregulation in childhood anxiety. Journal of Affective Disorders, 91, (2), 113-124.

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