How to Give Your Kids Autonomy | Parenting 101 | Space One 2 One | Gilbert Lifestyle Photographer
Real quick before I jump into how to give your kids autonomy I just have to love on these pictures a little bit! I’ve been planning this session for a long time because that little stuffed dog is the sun and moon and stars to my little girl. Piper (the dog) goes with us EVERYWHERE! We even bought a second one just in case something happened to this one but just like out of a movie SHE CAN TELL THE DIFFERENCE! Granted one does look and feel considerably newer. I couldn’t help but steal a little studio time for myself at the beautiful Space One 2 One studio in Mesa, AZ to document this childhood friendship.
Okay, on to the parenting goodness for today.
What is Autonomy?
Without getting super technical Autonomy is basically the power to make decisions about yourself. If you do want to get all technical, google says its “the right or condition of self-government.”
Real quick let’s pause and consider how this plays into the everyday life of the average adult. Imagine for a second all the decisions that you make for yourself every single day. You decide when you get up, what to eat, how to do your hair, what to wear and what to pack for lunch. You decide how to get to work, whether or not to exercise, what to buy at the store, and what to make for dinner. You rule your life and make hundreds if not thousands of decisions everyday.
Not imagine not having any of that power. Imagine someone else mandates all those little decisions. Want to sleep in? Too bad, you HAVE to get up. Want yogurt instead of eggs for breakfast? Sorry, you don’t get to make that call. The mere thought frustrates me.
Well, that is the life of a newborn. Sure they can cry and do their best to communicate what they want but they don’t make any decisions about themselves. Parent’s decide when to change diapers, feed, or rock to sleep (though sleep is probably the most autonomous thing newborns can do). And all this limitation is just fine for a newborn, obviously, they can’t do much of anything anyways. But what about when that newborn grows up?
How to recognize when your kids are ready for some autonomy.
One day when Emi was around eighteen months old I was getting her dressed for the day. Cute, feminine clothes, pink bow, and shoes. Except when I went to put her shoes on she started squirming and firmly told me “NO!” Immediately I thought Uh-oh! Here we go! And sure enough it wasn’t wearing shoes she objected to, she just wanted to wear a different pair.
Your kids will start “flexing” their autonomy muscles when they’re ready for more control over their own life. All you have to do is watch for the signs. They’ll start turning their nose up at food they don’t like or simply don’t want to eat that day. They’ll want to choose what they wear, the books you read together, what activities to do, etc. Bottom line is don’t worry! They’ll let you know when they’re ready for more autonomy… the big questions is how do you give it to them? How do you let them make their own choices without driving yourself crazy?
Give your kids the autonomy their ready for.
This is important. Autonomy is a life skill that is best learned in small doses. Obviously my two year old is not ready to leave the house and cross the street to a friends house on her own. But she usually wants to decide what to wear for the day and that she can do.
As she grows she’ll want to make more and more of these decisions and I, the parent, will take an increasingly backseat role. Lets break down what giving autonomy to a two year old looks like vs a 16 year old.
How to give your toddler autonomy.
Let’s stick with the example of choosing what to wear. If not handled carefully this could turn into a 30 minute conversation of this or that. Instead I give Emi limited choices. “Do you want to wear a dress or shorts? Shorts. Okay do you want to wear these shorts and shirt or these ones? Okay.” Now instead of 30 minutes we’re done in 5 and Emi feels empowered because she got to choose what to wear today.
Lunch? Same kind of thing. If I let her choose without guidance it would always be apple sauce and fruit snacks. Obviously as a mother who cares about her health and development I can’t allow that. Instead I’ll ask her if she wants to eat an apple or a banana? A sandwich or quesadilla? etc. You can adapt this to pretty much anything.
Other things you can do to encourage autonomy and empower decision making is putting things at kid level. Toys, snacks, etc. Then she doesn’t even have to ask me she can help herself.
How to give your teenager autonomy.
As kids grow into teenagers that think they know everything you can’t keep treating them like their two and limiting their choices. Instead think of boundaries that give your teens the most freedom possible while still keeping them safe. A few from my own teen years.
- Mom and Dad get to be in the know ALWAYS, its okay if you move from friends house to friends house, just let the parents know where you are going and who you’re with.
- Can’t be at a friends house if their parents aren’t home.
- We eat dinner as a family at 6 pm.
- A reasonable curfew.
- Homework must be done before you can play with friends.
Guidelines like these actually empower your kids to make the best decisions for themselves. Boundaries give kids and adults alike a safe space to operate in while still making many decisions for themselves.
An Example of all this at work.
Bedtime is not Emi’s favorite time of day, sometimes she’s fine with it, usually on the days she gets a nap. Well on this particular day she did not get a nap and so when I told her it was bedtime she didn’t just start cry-screaming, she ran away from me. As a natural result I had to grab her and physically carry her into her room for bedtime which of course wasn’t the end of the tantrum. She lost the privilege of bedtime stories (something she’s still talking about days later), and wouldn’t let me put her pajamas on. I really don’t like manhandling my baby when I its not absolutely necessary and was grasping for a way to breach the tantrum and get her back to neutral. In an instant it came to me, let her choose which pajamas to wear. “Do you want to pick which pajamas you want to wear?” I asked and immediately she calmed down and latched on to this life raft of autonomy, a chance to take back the control she’d just lost when I physically carried her into her room. She chose her pajamas and we got on with bedtime. All it took was finding a small way for her to make a decision for herself.
The worst thing you can do is withhold Autonomy from your kids.
It may be difficult to give up control of your little one’s life but one way or another it will happen eventually. One day they will grow up, move away, go to college, get married, have their own kids and their own life and at some point you can’t make decisions for them anymore. Giving your kids autonomy is about letting them practice in a safe way so as the decisions get bigger and the consequences more life altering they’ve already figured out how to make the best choices for themselves. And, when they can trust you to trust them, they’ll be way more likely to come back for advice, love, and support when they need it.