Do our children have the right amount of autonomy?

by Linda Michie, Executive Director and Founder at Wishing Well Adoption & Family Services

From birth to adulthood, we teach our children skills. We clap when our baby first holds a spoon. We cheer them on when they participate in sports. We warn them of the incredible responsibility of their driver’s license. If we’re really tuned in, not only do we let our children know how proud we are of their accomplishments, but we make sure they recognize the pride they feel in themselves. We know these are the building blocks for developing self-esteem.

Children Need Autonomy (and good directions!) - Wishing Well Adoption and Family ServicesBut are we giving them enough opportunity to build that esteem by making their own choices and accomplishing their own goals? Are we giving them too many choices or helping them too much?
Children shine when they’re in the pocket of just the right amount of autonomy. They develop a sense of pride in making good choices and getting things done. They learn from their mistakes and failures. They feel strong and useful when they have some control over their own lives, and they feel protected and comforted when they have a strong leader and don’t have too much responsibility.

At each stage of their development, they make choices based on their needs. Babies will turn their heads away from you when they’ve had enough stimulation. Toddlers will fling a spoonful of mashed peas across the room when they are full. Teenagers will fly into a rage if denied their socialization needs. If we recognize their communications we can respond respectfully building a foundation of trust and starting a life-long tradition of honoring each other’s needs. Yes, we’ll teach them to honor our needs as well.

When children are not offered enough autonomy, they take it.

They will say no, ignore, rebel, do the opposite, divert attention, whatever it takes to get their needs met. When they are given too much autonomy they get nervous and attempt to control the situation by parenting, bossing, and attempting things they are not ready for.
Some things you have to decide. You are the adult, the parent, the protector, and you have to make some decisions to keep them safe and headed in the right direction. The other decisions they can make, allowing them to feel their free will, express their own personalities, and develop that sense of self.

It looks like this:

“Gotta get dressed!” … to protect from the weather, be appropriate in public, etc., this is a decision you have to make. “Want to wear the spider-man shirt or Batman today?” (Ahhh! I choose my own super-human destiny!)

“Time for dinner!” … got to have some vegetables to stay healthy and strong. Your decision. “Would you like carrots or corn tonight?” (Sweet! she cares about what I like.)

“Homework time!” … no choice there. “Want your snack before or after?” (I know what I would choose.)

“You can stay over at your friends, but I will have to talk to their parents. I can call them or invite them for coffee. What do you think?”

“If you’re going to the mall with your friends, I’ll need you to stay in contact. Would you like to check in every hour or every two hours?”

“You may drive my car and you will have to pay for the additional insurance. How will you earn the money?”

You’re combining the teaching of being responsible with the acknowledgment of free-will.

Rules for autonomy:

  1. Both choices should be acceptable outcomes. “Do you want to eat your peas or get a spanking?” are not acceptable choices.
  2. Choices must be age-appropriate and development-appropriate. Small decision for young children. Bigger decisions as they develop and show responsibility.
  3. Keep your word. If you give a choice, follow through and allow it.
  4. Don’t argue about it. If they don’t like either choice you can simply let them know that these are the only choices and if they unable to choose you will be happy to do it for them.
  5. Ask your children to present a plan for their choices. This gives them the opportunity to think things through before they happen. If they want karate lessons, how would they pay for them? Who would drive them? How would this affect the rest of the family?
  6. Don’t ask if you don’t want an answer. You can’t say “hey buddy, do you want to brush your teeth before bed?” because if he says no, you will have to honor that choice.
  7. If your child is proficient in a skill, allow him the opportunity to do it himself. If he’s learning and it’s ok that it’s not done perfectly, allow him to do it himself. I know it takes twice as long but when we do things for our children that they can do themselves, we are taking away a chance for them to have the feeling of accomplishment.
  8. Allow your children to make mistakes. They have to fall to learn to get up. They have to get their hearts broken to know that they can survive it. They may have to get a bad grade to understand the consequences of not doing their best. They have to learn to say no to themselves before they can go out into the world and make good choices.

Wishing you well with your parenting today and every day.

Remember, if you need a parenting coach, and you’re in Hampton Roads, call (757) 739-2118 to make an appointment for your initial assessment.

Linda Michie

Linda Michie

Executive Director and Founder at Wishing Well Adoption & Family Services
Linda Michie holds a Master's degree in Urban Studies, and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and Criminal Justice from Old Dominion University.
Linda has worked in the child welfare field since 1999 and is a Licensed Child Placing Agent.
Wishing Well assists in domestic adoptions in the state of Virginia, and provides parenting coaching, and supervised visitation in Virginia Beach, VA.
Linda Michie

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