Share this Post
By Bridget McNamara
Why is autonomy an important consideration when raising children? Not only does it lend to independence in the child taking care of themselves but it also serves them quite well in adolescence, their teenage years, and into adulthood. A child who has developed a strong sense of self will be less likely to blindly follow their peers into morally questionable behavior. By definition, autonomy is behaving and thinking independently from others. Your child being allowed and encouraged to behave and think independently from you is excellent practice for their future. If they can say no to you and assert their individuality, they will be able to later say no to their peers. While having your young child be a people-pleaser may seem like a parent’s dream, it doesn’t serve them well as a teenager or adult.
When I was raising and caring for young children I was told to give the children choices and the example was always something like offering them a red cup or a blue cup—they wanted to drink out of a bowl like a dog. Do you want the purple pants or the yellow pants? They want the Spiderman costume. Do you want to eat now or miss lunch today? Not a choice at all. It was essentially giving the child two choices that ultimately served the purpose of appeasing the adult.
Like most things I’ve learned about caring for children, I learned from the children themselves that these aren’t actually choices. This is a technique for adults to gain compliance from children by creating the illusion that they are in control of a situation. This choice is A) what the adult wants or B) what the adult wants in a different way. I know you have heard or said this one: “You can either do what I’m telling you to do or I will HELP you” which is, frankly, a veiled threat. More often than not, if I have to help you, you aren’t going to like it because I’m pissed off now but still technically following the “rules” of gentle parenting. Another veiled threat of a choice is something like, “You can clean your room right now or you can miss playing at the park this afternoon.” In this way, the adult in the situation has worded the choice carefully so that it appears the child actually chose not to go to the park to play. When the reality is that the clean room and the park have nothing to do with each other. Now, if it was a flat tire that needed to be changed to get to the park that would be a real choice. The first option is actually a manipulation of facts and erodes the trust between the child and the parent. Children do figure this out very quickly.
What is the true goal? The true goal is to nurture a child’s cognitive and moral development. To build their self-esteem, not with praise, but with the inner satisfaction one gains from doing and being themselves. A child cannot develop their inner voice if your voice is the only one they hear.
Do not confuse autonomy with permissiveness. Autonomy for children is mostly about setting up the environment so that they may have a sense of decision making and control over their own body, belonging, and self-care. I slowly came to the realization that these pseudo choices were not encouraging nor fostering authentic autonomy. Teaching children that they own themselves and encouraging independence doesn’t look like two arbitrary choices dangled in front of them.
It began to look different in my house.
It came in the form of handing a dirty faced child a hand mirror and warm cloth while pointing out that their face is dirty as opposed to swooping in and accosting them with a cloth over their face. Similarly, It came in the form of a mirror and a brush for messy heads.
It came in the form of stools to reach sinks with soaps that are simple to pump and towels hanging low enough for them to dry.
It was never making them eat anything they said they didn’t like. Keep offering, but no manipulations or rewards for eating.
It was small pitchers of water at the table so they can pour themselves a drink. A butter knife and a banana so they can cut their own snack. Handing over a towel so they can clean up their own spill.
Always asking before swooping in, “Can I help you with that?”
It became pajamas as outfits, sticks piling up in the back of the van, and pancakes for dinner.
Some of the things I’ve listed here may remind you of a Montessori classroom and I think Maria Montessori is a wonderful resource for parents wishing to set up the home environment in a way that naturally contributes to the child’s ability to self-govern. http://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/History-of-Montessori-Education/Biography-of-Maria-Montessori/
In all these ways that give children real control of themselves, they become less likely to seek out their independence in more undesirable ways — because there aren’t always choices, are there?
So what if it really isn’t a choice? What if you have to be out the door in ten minutes to make it to big brother’s swimming lessons in time and your little one is on the floor playing Legos with one sock on?
Then it isn’t a choice.
Let us just be honest with our children about that. There are small choices to make within the realm of the thing that’s happening no matter what. I’m not a fan of fooling kids into thinking they control a situation when they don’t. I’m more about straight talk and honesty with children of all ages. They will grow to understand that you are manipulating them and they will grow to use these manipulations on their friends and siblings. Personally, I do not think this is a desirable trait that I want to foster in my children. It is not a desirable trait in the adults that I prefer to spend my time with.
While putting the other sock on, “I’m going to put your other sock on and then your shoes. We have to go right now no matter what. Here’s a container for your Legos so we can bring them.” Yes, in these situations I will pick up the child but all the while saying, “I’m sorry to make you go when you don’t want to. I know you’d rather stay home and play with your toys. What is the first thing you are going to play with when we get back home?” and by this time I buckling him into his car seat.
There is no, “Do you want to wear the X sock or the Y sock? Do you want me to open the door or do you want to open the door?” That never does anything but frustrate my kids and leave them with too many choices that they don’t really give a twit about. It’s meant to distract and manipulate and really serves no purpose in the development of the child. They don’t need to be distracted from their feelings. They need their feelings acknowledged and understood and they need your honesty.
Now for the part that may be a tough pill to swallow — the part that goes beyond a cute stool at the bathroom sink and beyond the mismatched socks.
Let your children say no.
More often than not, that “no” is really a “not yet”. They aren’t finished with what they are doing. They don’t want to stop in the middle of something to come to the dinner table. They aren’t ready to clean up their toys. They have a crucial piece to add to their Lego creation before they can brush their teeth. There is no shame in wanting to finish what you are doing before moving on to the next task. In fact, it is a desirable trait.
Some thoughts on ways to frame your requests to your children:
“If you can get to a place where you can stop for the day, it’s getting late and we need to start doing our bedtime tasks.”
“I’d like to get all the toys back into this basket before we leave. Let me know when you’re ready to do that.”
“I hear that you don’t like broccoli so which vegetable would you like to have on your plate instead?”
Allowing your children to say no and to argue with you teaches them to assert themselves. Learning to say no is a valuable life skill. Many adults would be better off having learned this skill too. Honestly, you want strong willed children who don’t cave to pressure as it will serve them well as they grow into the teenaged years and the pressures become very real.
People pleasing children become pushover adults.
The truth is, though, that autonomy is bigger than all of that because those things are relatively simple to do. Fostering true lifelong individuality is harder. It isn’t surface stuff. It’s deep, soul searching stuff. It has nothing to do with “choosing your battles” or avoiding tantrums. It is the work of creating fearless, freethinking humans.
In my house, the desire for my children to develop genuine autonomy also applies to personal belief systems that include politics, religion, and (*gasp*) Santa Claus. We don’t tell our kids what to believe. When they asked if Santa was real, they got the truth. They were told the origin stories and the straight fact that as far as I know, there is not big guy in a red suit that sneaks into homes on Christmas Eve and delivers gifts. Some people become sad when they hear of families who don’t instill these myths of Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy in their children, as if it somehow steals magic from their souls. Trust me, my children are full of magic. They have magical, imaginary games they’ve been playing with an ongoing storyline and character development for years. As far as magic goes, have you ever heard about the mating patterns of angler fish? Seen two bird of raptor hold talons and spin through the air? Looked at the Fibonacci sequence as it occurs in nature? These very real things are about as magical as it gets. (Although, I will admit, the downside to your children not believing in the tooth fairy is that they just hand you their bloody tooth and ask for a dollar.)
We also do not tell our children what is true or untrue about God and religion. We give them the facts as we know them, the stories as they are told around the world and from all religions, and let them decide. There is no coercion and no shame. Politics are presented in an age appropriate fashion as well. When the 2017 presidential campaigning was in full effect, we made charts on poster board of each candidate and where they stand on main issues in our country. Even at a young age, children have a right to decide these things for themselves. If the proof can really be in the pudding, I can say without question that my children have a moral compass that surpasses most adults that I know, including myself. They openly question everything and have truly incited, in me, self-reflection like I have never known before.
It’s incredibly important to me that my children always know that I’m going to tell them the truth about everything. There isn’t much out there by way of studies that show the effects of not telling the truth. I did find this small one, and I understand that it’s definitely not conclusive but it demonstrates pretty well where I stand on this issue. (http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/pressrelease/lied_to_children_more_likely_to_cheat_and_lie)
It starts out as a washcloth and a mirror and accepting the “no” to broccoli. It evolves into the core beliefs that make us who we are.
It has taken me until my forties to shed all that which was placed upon me as a child and to get into the nitty gritty of who I am in the core of my being. My eleven year old is already there. I envy her that and at the same time feel proud that I can give her that gift — the power to say no to that which does not sit well with her. It is the gift of herself in her purest and truest form.