Autonomy Class

A couple weeks ago, we drafted a whole post about boundaries, along with every other parenting content creator on the block. Patti and I went back and forth on what exactly we wanted to say because at this point, “boundaries” is quite the buzzword and we didn’t know if our post actually had anything new to contribute. Emotional boundaries, trust boundaries, “I won’t let you…”, bodily consent, and so on; each with their own nuance and circumstances.

At our kids’ age (toddler to early school age), most of the boundaries we put in place are for personal safety. And why do we have these safety boundaries, besides avoiding the obvious child negligence charge? So that our kids can learn age-appropriate autonomy without harming themselves or people around them. So let’s start from there….

You know when your child refuses to eat what you made for dinner? Or when they put on some mismatched getup instead of the outfit you laid out for them? They’re not trying to be difficult. What you are witnessing is their autonomy at work.

Autonomy is the capacity to think and act freely, having control of our own actions and decisions. It is what allows our kids to become independent, to understand how their choices and actions affect outcomes, and to learn what they can and cannot control.

 Autonomy also provides:

  • A developed sense of self
  • Feeling in control over their mind and body
  • Increased confidence and self-esteem
  • Cognitive growth
  • Self-motivation
  • An increased sense of responsibility

According to psychologists, autonomy is one of the three fundamental needs of children, along with competence (mastering skills and learning new ones) and connectedness/relatedness (a sense of belonging or attachment to people). Research has also found that people who feel more autonomous make better decisions.

Since autonomy is such a huge development pillar, it influences our kids’ physical and cognitive skills, learning, social interactions, and emotional regulation.

Child in Charge

Although autonomy is a natural, internal drive, this ability is developed during childhood and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Babies are sponges, absorbing as much information from their environment as they can. Around 7 months of age, a cognitive shift occurs where they realize that they are their own person and want to do things without help, like getting a toy that’s just out of reach or feeding themselves.

As their cognitive and physical skills expand during their toddler years, our kid’s want for autonomy increases. The result: the terrible twos/threenager era marked by a lot of egocentric vernaculars (Me! Mine!), big emotions when they don’t get their way (tears and tantrums), and a huge push for independence (Not you. I do it.).

Even though that intensity level for autonomy subsides as our kids learn boundaries and expectations, it comes back again during adolescence. Around this time, they have a better grasp about the world and feel confident in their skills to set forth and be a part of it (very Little Mermaid of them). During the teen years, their fight for autonomy is one of the last developmental milestones to becoming a self-sufficient adult.

Nurturing Autonomy

When parents support their child’s autonomy, especially during high stress situations, they positively impact their perseverance, academic performance, judgement, and adaptability. However, autonomy can be a tricky thing for parents.

On one hand, we want our kids to exercise self-advocacy and express themselves. On the other hand, we don’t want to raise a Veruca Salt. So what can we do to support their autonomy, but still be a parent? Here are some suggestions:

  • Provide clear and present boundaries. Rules shouldn’t be broken. If they were, what’s the point of having them in the first place? To ensure that your kid follows them, make sure they know what the boundaries are, why they are in place, and what will happen if they cross them. Make sure your instructions are direct and age-appropriate, and also provide the reasons why said boundary is in place. If they’re old enough, include your kiddos in creating the rules and the consequences so they will more likely stick. Also, make sure that you can enforce the rules and the consequences you have established. “Five rules respected 100% of the time are better than 20 rules with haphazard compliance.”

  • Give routine and structure. Routine promotes predictability. That predictability allows your child to anticipate what’s next, encouraging them to gradually take the reins and do the task themselves. For example, they may feel like putting on their pjs all by themselves as part of their nighttime routine. Once mastered, they may want to brush their teeth without guidance, and so on. Eventually, your child will complete their activities independently and maybe change it up to make it meaningful to them (like picking out the PJs to wear, requesting a different flavor toothpaste, or getting their own water in their favorite cup before bed).

  • Don’t be so overprotective. It’s one thing to have house rules and expectations (especially concerning their safety) but those rules shouldn’t hinder autonomy. If they are in a rigid framework, you don’t give them the opportunity build their self-confidence and self-trust. Limiting autonomy has been associated with increased anxiety in kids as well.

  • DIY with supervision. Allow your kids to do things on their own, especially if they have the motivations to try. You may have to give them extra time (and patience) to put their own shoes on, make their breakfast, or pack up their bookbag. You can also incorporate autonomous opportunities and age-appropriate chores throughout their day, like cleaning up their toys after they’re done playing or laying out their clothes for school. Accomplishing a task boosts autonomy and encourages independence. If the task becomes too difficult and you see they’re becoming frustrated, offer encouragement or guidance before taking over.

  • Let them choose. Just like Neo, giving your child the opportunity to choose (even if it is as small as what color gummy vitamin they want) gives them a sense of control and ownership of their lives. It also makes them responsible for their decision and any consequence it may carry.

  • Respect, label, and validate. You can help build your little one’s autonomy by listening to their ideas and thoughts. This lets them know that their perspective and opinions matter. If their requests won’t hurt anyone (and it’s time and place appropriate), let them try it and see what happens (“You wanna make a sandwich with ketchup, chips, leftover steak, and gummy worms? Okay, let me know how it tastes.”) Don’t forget to label those feelings if what they try doesn’t go as planned. Help them learn how to pick themselves up and try again after failure.

  • Allow for unstructured play. Unstructured play builds your kid’s autonomy by giving them free range imagination. They decide what to play, how to play, and the ability to pivot it if it’s no longer fun.

All of these ideas help your child build and flex their autonomy muscle. It’s really cool when you start to see your kid connect the dots and do things on their own. It’s an affirming, “Oh-my-baby-is-growing-up” moment.

But remember, sometimes autonomy requests will pop up in an unexpected place at a very inconvenient time, like at the dinner table or right before you walk out the door. These especially will test your own regulation and personal boundaries, so be prepared.

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How to build children’s autonomy step by step (
Autonomy in Child Development (
How Parents Can Help Their Teens Develop Autonomy (
Autonomy in children (

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