Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Encouraging Autonomy

I was re-reading How To Talk So Kids Will Listen the other night and was laughing out loud about the chapter on Encouraging Autonomy.  Because the authors were describing some of my morning routines and feelings with my preschooler:

       The whole business of encouraging autonomy can be quite complicated.  There are forces within us that work against it (with our children)... Most of us today are busy and in a hurry.  We usually wake our children ourselves, button their buttons, tell them what to eat and what to wear, because it seems so much easier and faster to do it for them.

      Then we have to cope with our strong feelings of connectedness to our children.  We have to fight against seeing their failures as our failures.  It's hard to allow those so close and dear to us to struggle and make mistakes when we're certain that a few words of wisdom could protect them from pain.

      It also takes great restraint..on our part not to move in with advice. I know that to this day, whenever one of my children asks, "Mom, what do you think I should do?" I have to sit on my myself not to tell them immediately that I think they should do.  

    I remember the deep satisfaction that came from being so totally needed by three small human beings.  And so it was with mixed feelings that I discovered that a mechanical alarm clock could wake my children more efficiently than all my motherly reminding.  And it was also with mixed feelings that I gave up my job as reader of bedtime stories when the children finally learned to read by themselves.

   It's a bittersweet road we parents travel.  We start with total commitment to small helpless newborns. Then over the years we worry, plan, comfort and try to understand.  We give our love, labor and knowledge and our experience- so that one day they will have the inner strength and confidence to leave us.


So hard, as we travel down the road of parenting to let things go.  I thought to myself this morning as my preschooler was getting ready for school (or I was getting her ready for school), that the helping her brush her teeth and wiping her nose is something that one day she will do for herself.  At times the toddler clinging to my pant leg and not wanting me to use the bathroom and hold her instead, will one day be a distant memory.  And maybe I will long for those days with the pitter patter of little feet wanting me to be there to help them with everything.

It also reminds me of Psych 101. For those that took that course, remember Erikson? The task preschoolers must accomplish is AUTONOMY vs. SHAME/DOUBT.  These early years are the building blocks to self-esteem, and we want them to go forth in this world with feeling they can stand on their own, and not doubt themselves.

To encourage independence and autonomy, we have to start at some point.  Here are some tips to help get us started:

1) Give choices.  Yes, I know, you have heard me preach this before.  Give big choices to big kids, little choices to little kids.  Use the word 'choice' in there too. Giving kids 2 choices on what shirt to wear will help them feel empowered.  "Would you like to wear your pink pants or your blue pants?, you can choose"

2) Show empathy for their daily struggles.  "Zippers can be difficult.  Sometimes it helps to zip it all the way at the bottom before you start."

3) Don't rush to answer questions.  When they ask, "Why is the sky blue?" don't come up with a solution, ask them instead, "That's an interesting question, what do you think?"

4) Don't take away hope. For those kids who dream, fantasize, and anticipate things, try to let them prepare on their own.  When a child says, "I really want that Barbie dream car" you can ask them ways they can think of to earn the car, save for it, etc by saying, "So you wish you could have the Barbie Dream car.  Tell me about that.."

Other tips to encourage their own independence:
-Don't fuss over your kids  (brushing hair out of their eyes) or saying "Sit up straight", "Take your hair out of your face"
-Don't talk about your child in front of them
-Let the child answer for themselves when people ask you in front of them
-Don't focus on them not being old enough for something. Instead say, "When you are ready, you will be able to..."

And lastly, try not to say "no" too many times.  It can cause a child's autonomy to be directly attacked.
Here are some alternatives:
-Give Information "Can I go to my friend's house next door?"  Mom: " We are having dinner in 5 minutes" aka "no you can't"
-Accept Feelings  "Mom, I don't want to leave the park!"  Instead of "No, we are leaving now!" Say: "I can see how much you enjoy the park and you would love to stay. It's really hard to leave a place that's so fun"
-Substitute a "Yes" for a "No": "Mom can we go to the playground?" Instead of "No we have to eat now", say "Yes we can, after dinner."

As hard as it is to 'Let Go', it will do your child a great service to be taught how to do things on their own.  When they spill, show them how to get a rag and clean it up.  When they are having problems with their friends, don't rush to give advice. Ask them what they think can make the situation better for them.

Hang in there! We are all in this together, right?  I seriously needed to re-read the chapter on autonomy because I am that mom that is in a hurry and buttoning and putting on my child's shoes myself is faster than her doing it.  But I need to remind myself that even if we are late, it's just preschool and she will learn far more by doing it on her own at a sail's pace :)


  1. Love this post!! So insightful and sweet reminders of how to guide our children to a healthy future. :)