A vital skill that all children must learn is autonomy- or independence. It is a skill and attitude about oneself and the capabilities one has in their life. It’s essential for resilience and for a child to listen to their intuition and follow their passions. Autonomy can be as simple as a child using sign language to tell you “milk” or verbally telling you they’d like a drink or as complex as their feelings, desires, or dreams.
Autonomy begins when a parent understands that their child is a separate being, with different needs and feelings. From there, the child develops preferences, likes certain things and dislikes other things, and maybe has a different personality type and manner of communication. They develop opinions and make their own (albeit small) decisions in daily life happenings. When guided properly, children can make wise decisions and can hold up to peer pressure in their preteen years and beyond. It all begins with the mindset that the child is treated with respect, that they feel capable, and that they are worth getting to know.
Autonomy also allows a child freedom of expression within certain limits. Hairstyle, clothing, music, interests, hobbies, and friends are all things that children should have a say in, with parental guidance and limit-setting if you are uncomfortable with something your child wants to do. Always talk about things, don’t just say “no” or “you’re not doing that” because knowing the reason why (if there is one) is just as important to your bond/relationship as being an authority figure.
If you really want your daughter to do ballet but she doesn’t have an interest in it and instead prefers to play an instrument or play sports, let her do so. It’s vital that children be able to try different activities to see what they like and to find things they are good at. The arts are just as important, for boys and girls, and being open to anything your child might be interested in (if appropriate) is important. There’s no bigger slap in the face than a parent not supporting their child’s interests, even if the parent doesn’t take an interest in that activity themselves. Children think simplistically and so they equate you not being involved with them or their activities as you not loving them or other similar feelings. While this isn’t true (maybe you have to catch up on work stuff and have to miss that recital or game), try your best to be there for your child’s performances and games. It feeds into their positive feelings account which helps them feel important, loved, connected, and all those feelings help build resilience, which is crucial for navigating life’s challenges.
Autonomy also means letting your child make mistakes, try things for themselves (like putting socks and shoes on, getting dressed, taking their clothes off and putting them on, going to the bathroom to go potty on their own, washing their hands, busing their dish after a meal or snack, putting dirty clothes into the laundry basket, cleaning up a mess they made, cleaning up toys, and eventually helping with household chores like doing the dishes, sweeping, mopping, dusting, folding clothes and putting them away, etc.
Autonomy at the park means letting your child climb and explore on their own, with you nearby in case they need help or assistance. Let them climb and explore on their own. Don’t tell them what they should do. If they look like they aren’t sure what to do with something, give them an explanation of what it is or 2 ways they can use it. See what they come up with. Encourage cooperative play and to be on the lookout for others before they go down the slide or jump off a platform. Be concerned for others and verbalize this to them and they will develop empathy.
Let your child try thing for themselves. If they get stuck, try to talk them through it for how to get out (instead of just coming to their rescue and pulling them out). If they are in a dangerous situation, this does not apply! Save that baby! But for everyday stuff, you can help them by talking them through how to fix the problem. This helps children develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and gets them to focus on finding their own solutions instead of relying on others. Children will need to learn how to rely on others for help as well as themselves, but self-awareness can be a tool used for safety, confidence, and adeptness.
You can help your older baby (6+ months) build autonomy by:
- Talking them through their feelings instead of picking them up the second they cry
- Empathetically say:
- “I know you want me to hold you right now, but I’m cooking and it’s not safe to hold you right now.”
- “Are you hungry? You ready to eat some food? It’s almost ready, just hold on.”
- “Are you sad that Charlie knocked over your tower? Should we build another one?”
- “Uh oh! You fell down! Did that scare you? Are you doing ok?”
- “Bonk! You got a bonk on your head! Does it hurt, honey?”
- “Okay, bath time’s all done! Let’s get you out of the tub. I know you want to play more, but it’s bedtime. We can have more bath time tomorrow.”
- Empathetically say:
- Having them use baby sign language to communicate with you
- Giving them a choice of being spoon-fed or eating with their hands
- Playing alone with toys on the floor (called “independent floor play”)
- Looking at books and flipping through them (use board books)
- Having them give you their bottle/plate/bowl when done
- “If you’re all done, give me your bottle/plate/bowl please.”
You can help your toddler/preschooler build autonomy by:
- Having (age-appropriate) expectations of your child
- Giving them small daily responsibilities
- Having them help you with tasks that need to get done
- bringing in groceries, raking leaves, picking up sticks in the yard, putting laundry in the washer, taking a small trash can out (like the lint or bathroom trash), or cleaning glass doors/windows
- Having them be responsible for cleaning up their toys or just 1 thing, like blocks
- Having them pick out what shirt they want to wear for the day
- Get dressed by themselves (with your assistance, if needed)
- Talking them through their feelings instead of picking them up the second they cry or giving in to their demands/wishes
- Empathetically say:
- “I know you want that toy, but we aren’t buying that today. If you want, we can put it on your list. Should we do that?”
- “I know you don’t want to leave the swimming pool, but we have other things we need to do today. Should we come back again soon?”
- “I know you’re upset that you don’t have presents too, but this is Ingrid’s birthday party. You’ll get to open presents at your birthday party in February.”
- “I know screaming is fun, but we only scream outside, not inside the car. When we get to the grocery store and are outside, would you like to scream then?”
- “You’re upset that James took your toy, aren’t you? What’s a solution to this problem? Do you want to go ask him for it back, or take turns playing with it?”
- Empathetically say: