Career Guide


Why we need to allow children to be children

Developing a sense of agency through exploration. Showing that we recognise the child’s capabilities and ideas is crucial in building up her sense of identity and her understanding of how much she can control her own life.

At Leaderonomics, our Science of Building Leaders research indicates that leadership is a quality that develops over time, spanning an entire lifetime.

Different key elements and experiences need to embed at different stages of one’s life journey – possibly at different times for different individuals – in order to mould someone into the leader they aspire to be. Key elements that are developed early in life include character, the existence of role models, and agency.

Our previous articles provided significant coverage on character building and role models – available on www.leaderonomics.com – and this article will focus on agency.


What is agency

Agency is the ability of people to express their own individual power, through thoughts or actions. It is the power that allows people to think for themselves and be the ones in charge of shaping their experiences.

Agency can take individual or collective forms. In simple words, as researchers Barry Zimmerman and Timothy Cleary put it, “personal agency refers to one’s capability to originate and direct actions for given purposes”.

Why is it so important? Having a sense of agency from a very young age is crucial for the development of well-rounded leaders. It contributes to one’s self esteem, identity and wellbeing.

The opportunity to make choices and attempt various tasks by themselves, allow children to view themselves as independent and competent members of society.

Having the feeling that we are in control of things and that we can influence events are important and such cognition needs to be developed at a young age. Showing that we recognise the child’s capabilities and ideas is crucial in building up her sense of identity and her understanding of how much she can control her own life.

Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson who gave us the various levels of psychological development in humans, talked about the second level as being one where children (as young as 1.5 to two years old), are faced with the conflict between autonomy, shame and doubt.

Author and educator Dan Gartrell in a 1995 journal quotes Erikson as saying, “Children that fail to develop autonomy are likely to remain dependent on adults for a protracted period of time, to the detriment of their development, or be overly influenced by peers.” This phenomenon is called “mistaken behaviours”.

Those that are suffering from this tend to doubt themselves long into adulthood, and may not be able to take any risks that would lead to new experiences and therefore, learning. In addition, they may even feel resentment and hostility towards the adults in their lives that did not allow them the freedom to be more autonomous.

Sounds depressing? For leadership, this translates into lesser personal initiative taken by these individuals to try something new, learn something on their own, or in general, push for personal progress.

Although there are other important elements for one’s leadership development, agency is crucial and is an element evident in abundance in great leaders.

In a study published in Time magazine last year, titled Secrets of Super Siblings, nine families that produced highly successful siblings were observed.

One common thread was that all nine families allowed their children “a free range childhood”. Children were allowed to do anything they wanted – quite the opposite of today’s “helicopter parenting” trend.

“We were given all sorts of freedom to do whatever we wanted,” according to Tan, now a poet and the author of a dozen books. Maya, an artist and architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, said: “They were the anti-dragon parents.” The duo were siblings in the study.

Granted, many of these children grew up in a different era, and mostly in American suburbs where there was minimal danger riding your bicycle around town alone, but the point is they were given choices.

Choices to decide what they wanted to do, what lessons they wanted to take, and how they wanted to spend their free time – and this involved much play – be it board games, going around exploring the town, or any other form of fun, playful activity.

Academics Charlotte Højholt and Dorte Kousholt in a paper they presented at the 2015 Research seminar Child, families and communities walk us through the story of a boy, Paul, as part of their research in Denmark. Paul went through kindergarten with multiple conflicts between himself and his teachers, as well as his mother and the after-school centre.

Paul struggled with making friends and mixing in group, and soon withdrew and spent more time by himself, or at home, even though his parents tried to set up various opportunities for him.

Children, however, have quite unequal possibilities in “orientating themselves in this social complexity”, a lot depends on how playmates and adults view them and relate to them, as well as how they belong in communities.

Finding a way into activities and communities poses a challenge for children – at the same time, it defines the kind of person they are or could be in that community or activity.

Højholt and Kousholt concludes, “there seems to be a movement from struggling hard to find a place in the children’s communities, towards withdrawing, and turning away from the after-school centre – wanting to stay at home instead.

Both the adults and the other children seem to give up along the way, and they end up concluding that Paul does not belong here. And at the end it seems that Paul also thinks so himself.”

Paul is an example of a child who for certain reasons had not developed agency during his childhood and it will affect his personal leadership as an adult. So, how could this be different for other kids?

Zimmerman and Cleary look at agency and self-efficacy in adolescents and found that the degree of agency highly depends on the level of self-efficacy each individual holds – in other words, the level in which they perceive themselves capable in fulfilling an objective.

They found that high self-efficacy students are more likely to persevere and do well at a task, as opposed to low efficacy students that are more likely to give up earlier.

Those that doubt their efficacy and tend to reduce their academic and success aspirations, are more prone to depression, and develop more problematic behaviours. Over time, this may have long term effects as it may jeopardise their career opportunities and outlook in life.

The missing link here is this: Why do some people develop high levels of self-efficacy, whereas some people, like Paul, don’t? Perhaps it is partly due to their own mindset – but children are malleable, and that indicates that the environment around them has much to do with how they turn out.


How to develop agency from young?

In essence, agency at a young age starts with giving children experiences in being influential. This starts with small steps, when the children are very young. It starts with the experiences we provide our children – in class, in the form of play, conversations they have and the various people that surround the child from parents, to teachers to role models.

For example, allow young children to make their own choices, by giving them two to three “safe” choices to choose from. When my daughter (Roshan’s) was three, she wanted to cook. I did not allow her to cook, but I would allow her a say on the menu by giving her two to three “safe” options.

You might not allow them to choose the playschool they go to, but you can allow them to pick the clothes they wear in the morning, from outfits you approve off.

The National Quality Standard (NQS) Professional Learning Programme from Australia recommends that in order to develop agency, a good way is to provide children with opportunities to develop their confidence in exploring, asking questions, offering ideas, and also learning from mistakes.

Curiosity, creativity, imagination, inquiry and experimentation all require a dose of independence, and encouraging these would develop a child’s agency at the same time.

Another way of developing agency is by providing real tasks and challenges to children – work that is usually reserved for adults but with some supervision – and this include cooking, gardening, or woodwork using real tools, under proper supervision.

As the NQS puts it, children are constantly reminded that they are not old enough to try on new activities – often for good reasons. The constant feeling of not being able to do things, however, may deter agency.

Zimmerman and Cleary see it crucial to find ways of empowering students to become “independent, self-regulated learners”. They suggest that education focuses on encouraging and helping students to set “process goals” rather than emphasise on results.

The students can focus on the strategy of tackling a math problem, or executing a writing strategy, or perfecting their ball throwing technique, rather than the points or grades they need to score.

The researchers say, “Process goals encourage learners to keep track of how well they perform a strategy, evaluate goal progress, and judge perceptions of competence.”

Another key element in helping students improve agency development, is to use social persuasion. Instead of encouraging comments such as “You can do this”, struggling students may benefit much more from feedback that links performance progress with strategy use. We can for instance, suggest how they can improve an element of the process that they are getting wrong.

This, explain Zimmerman and Cleary, “also enables students to make adaptive self-reflections, such as evaluating their performance in relation to mastery goals and attributing poor performances to ineffective strategy use”.

Educator Sue Grossman explains why letting children decide as much as possible can also help them accept decisions where they cannot have a choice, such as when there is a safety concern, or when there is a timeline to be followed (for example going to school).

In such occasions, it must be made clear that there is no compromise. However, if children are allowed to make minor decisions they’d be more willing to follow the rules when they have to.

“When children know they will be given sufficient opportunities to choose for themselves, they are more willing to accept those important “no choice” decisions adults must make for them,” argues Grossman.

Choice of words and tone when letting the child know they did something wrong might also impact their willingness to exhibit agency. When we angrily let a child know they made a bad decision, we may be sending the message that they had no right to decide at all, or that they are incompetent at making decisions overall. This may lower their levels of self-efficacy in the future.


Developing agency through play

Play is a powerful learning medium for young children – and adults. “The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers, of its relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being,” writes psychologist Dr David Whitebread and his team.

They say “The evolutionary and psychological evidence points to the crucial contribution of play in humans to our success as a highly adaptable species. Playfulness is strongly related to cognitive development and emotional well-being. The mechanisms underlying these relationships appear to involve play’s role in the development of linguistic and other representational abilities, and its support for the development of metacognitive and self-regulatory abilities.”

Play has significant positive outcomes for children as further studies have found that criminals had a sufficient deficit of play as children and later on in life. Further studies on rats by researchers Sergio Pellis and Vivien Pellis indicate that “Play deprived rats became more aggressive to other rats; were less able to mate successfully; and showed heightened levels of fear and uncertainty.” They add that play deprived rats are slower learners too.

Play is crucial for a child’s development and what better way to develop agency than letting the child choose what games to play, create their own game, and modify the storyline along the way, together with the conversations happening during play time is how to build agency in your children.

All we need to do is guide children from a young age towards independence, maturity and self-direction – an inherent force that every child is drawn to – by encouraging them and giving them the opportunities to experiment and test their abilities until they become confident to try out things on their own.

In a world where everything seems to move around us in supersonic speed, it is sadly common for parents to not have much time to spend with their children, and even worse, to not have time to focus on things that would really benefit their children. Everyone is guilty of that – this is the sad reality of our times.

As such, we often rely on teachers and others who interact with our children to pass on the right values, messages, behaviours and understanding. Spend time playing with your kids and allow them the space to grow into leaders. Keep playing!


Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics whilst Eva Christodoulou is head of research at Leaderonomics. The both of them spend countless hours doing research on leadership and in perfecting the science of building leaders. Both of them are parents who are experimenting with their own kids in the hopes of unlocking the secrets to leadership development. To find out more about their research, connect on Facebook (www.facebook.com/roshanthiran.leaderonomics) or via LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/roshanthiran/)

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