We value our autonomy. For each of us, making choices is important - from small choices about what to eat, to bigger choices about what to do in life. Being in charge of our lives gives us a sense of well-being; conversely, losing autonomy makes us feel helpless and useless.
If autonomy is important to us, it is important to our children, too. Think about your childhood – how you felt upset when you were not allowed to do what you wanted, and how curbs on your autonomy made you want to rebel.
Autonomy is defined as having the right to be independent, to have the freedom to make choices and to have control over one’s life.
When a child is not given autonomy, she
- becomes dependent
- becomes frustrated, angry, resentful
- becomes secretive
- has little interest in doing things
When a child is given autonomy, he
- is independent
- is confident, responsible, motivated
- has high self-esteem
- shows greater interest in learning
- has a sense of well-being
Let us look at a few examples to illustrate the above.
Your three-year-old wants to wear a particular dress, but you say, ‘No, that’s not a nice dress to wear to your friend’s house. Wear this one.”
Your child may think: I do not know how to make good choices/My view is not respected.
Possible result: After fighting for some time, she gives in to please you. A strong-willed child may get frustrated and angry every time she is forced to wear something she does not want to.
You are concerned that your child is not studying enough; so you take charge of your child’s homework. You set the time and make him do it. You see to it that it is correctly done.
Your child may think: I am not capable of handling my homework/Mom will take care of it. I don’t have to worry.
Possible result: She does not take responsibility. She does not feel competent and is not motivated.
Your child fights with her friend and returns home crying. You immediately phone the friend’s mother to solve the problem.
Your child may think: My parents will solve my problems.
Possible result: She lacks confidence in handling things on her own.
A possible culmination of all the above examples can be this scenario: Your child is finishing his 12th standard and you ask him what he wants to do in college. He says, “I don’t know.” You say exasperatedly, “You are 18 years old and you do not know what you want to do? “
Instead of yelling at him, think: How will he, for whom I made all the important decisions, suddenly be able to think for himself?
So, when a child is not encouraged to be independent, it can lead to a lack of self-confidence and self-worth and problems in the future.
What stops us from giving children autonomy
If autonomy is essential for a person’s self-esteem, then what prevents us from giving our children autonomy? We live in a society that promotes submission rather than independence in children. Our fears and beliefs make it hard for us to let go. Let us examine these:
Children are extensions of ourselves. We do not really believe that children are separate beings with minds and thoughts of their own. We feel that they are a part of us and that we can mould them into being whoever we want them to be.
Doing things for one’s child is way of showing love. As parents, we want to demonstrate our love by doing everything for our children - feeding them, helping them dress and putting on their shoes. We cannot see our children struggle, so we jump in to help them. As a result, we end up making them feel dependent or inadequate. The child gradually loses confidence and the will to do things by himself.
They are only children. They do not know any better. We feel that as we know much more than our children, we always need to advise and direct them. This comes from a belief that the child is like an empty slate. If that is so, did we have to instruct the baby when to turn over, walk or talk? Children are born with everything needed for their development. Our role is only to help that potential unfold.
Children should learn to obey. We feel that children should obey the elders. Obedience means expecting a child to submit to another’s will out of fear. After expecting obedience from a child, we wonder why she cannot think for herself. Have we encouraged autonomy of thought?
Fear of letting go. Our lives are so intertwined with our children’s that we fear the consequences if they are allowed to have autonomy. We think: Will he grow his hair and become a rock musician? Such things are unacceptable to my family, so it’s better that I squash my child’s autonomy right from the beginning.
In the interest of our children, we should give up these beliefs. Instead, let us think about how often in the day our child has to ask us - ‘Can I do this?’ Can we reduce such questions by saying ‘You decide’ and allow him to take control of certain things? We will surely see a link between the amount of control a child has over his life and his sense of contentment.
When a child does not want autonomy
Sometimes, children are not willing to be independent because we have not granted them autonomy at the right age. A child has a strong desire to eat by himself when he is just over a year old. When we do not allow him to do so and keep feeding him ourselves, he loses that desire and gets used to being fed. Then, when he is six, we say, ‘Why can’t you eat by yourself?’ Hence, granting autonomy when the child shows the need is important.
Some children are unable to be independent because they are afraid to sleep alone, or do not want to let go of the parent in a party. The child does not enjoy feeling dependent, but is unable to help himself. Forcing autonomy upon him may not help. We have to understand what the child is going through and help him overcome it.
Yet another situation where children do not want autonomy is when their need for their parent’s time is greater. They then want to be fed or put to bed in order to spend more time with the parent.
Kesang Menezes is a facilitator with parenting matters, a Chennai-based group conducting parenting workshops.