How to encourage autonomy in my child
A fundamental part of growing for children is to achieve full autonomy. This encourages their sense of responsibility, self-confidence, willpower and self-discipline. Autonomy is the ability to adhere to norms without external influence. When children can decide which rules will guide their behaviour, they are able to do what they think should be done. Moreover, children must develop their moral conscience and reasoning to promote, not only their autonomy, but also their freedom, willpower and self-esteem.
How can parents help encourage the development of their children’s autonomy? Building up children’s responsibility is a fundamental part of the acquisition of autonomy. For that, children need to understand the impact their actions, assuming the consequences of those actions. The consequences of their actions are learned through experience, so it is important for children to be allowed to make decisions, mistakes and discover situations on their own. They need to realise that they are the captains of their existence and become their own motivational moto.
Therefore, children who develop the ability to be responsible are those who are able to assess a given situation according to their own experience and what parents expect of them, in order to make an appropriate decision.
For children to achieve autonomy it is important to take into account the following:
- Parents must know the abilities of their children understanding what they are able to do according to their developmental stage.
- Parents must give their children freedom. Understanding that there is a continuous learning process.
- Children learn to automate processes by practicing, so it is necessary to give them enough time to learn those processes.
- Instructions should be simple, clear, concise and precise; leaving little space for them to misunderstand what is asked of them.
- The consequences of the decision the child makes should be established at the same time as the instruction.
- Small efforts should be valued, even if the final goal has not been achieved. It is important to consider the effort that they have put in to achieving that goal. Behaviour should be shaped until they reach their goal.
- Setting an example is the best way for children to learn what is expected of them. Sometimes they do not know what they have to do, if their parents show them what to do, they can imitate that behaviour and perform as expected.
It is important, from a very young age, for children to be responsible for the things they do. For example, if they spill water or milk on the table, parents should give them a cloth so they can clean it up; when they are one year old they will do it with difficulty, but when they are three they could probably do it without leaving a drop on the table; they will also be more careful when drinking from a glass.
Another example is when they refuse to go out without their coat. Usually parents get pulled into an argument that ends with the child crying and the father or mother being angry. It is difficult for parents to let them make this decision and learn from their mistake. Which is why they should let them go out without their coat, at least one time, in order for them to feel the cold and understand the consequence of their decision. After that one time, as hard as it is for parents to do, the experience would be enough for the child to learn the relevant lesson.
According to their age there are some things that parents can let the child learn, to build up that autonomy, such as:
- Between three and six years of age children can begin to take responsibility for certain activities, such as dressing by themselves, picking up their toys, putting on shoes, brushing their teeth, going to the bathroom by themselves, helping to set the table, helping around the kitchen and eating by themselves. While the task is being automatised, it will surely take more time to carry it out for them than for their parents. However, it is important to be able to properly learn the task and this can only be achieved through practice. The parent’s role would is to supervise and shape the performance of the child, making the necessary corrections. Likewise, parents can support the child’s autonomy by letting the child make small decisions, such as choosing between two changes of clothes to go to the park, or choosing their afternoon snack, or what activity they want to do with dad or mom on the weekends. These small choices can become a way to negotiate with children to carry out tasks that are tedious or boring for them, such as tidying up after playtime.
- Between the ages of six and nine, parents should allow children to take responsibility for tasks such as preparing their backpack, taking a bath, keeping their room tidy, helping to prepare food, folding and tidying away their clothes, filling the dishwasher, writing down notes, taking care of their school supplies, taking care of their pet, setting and clearing the table alone, doing their homework, taking out the garbage. Therefore, parents should be willing to support their children to create appropriate habits. During these years it is fundamental to keep in mind that limits and rules should be very well established. The routines that have previously been created could be narrowed a bit more with the inclusion of academic duties. This is a time for children to understand that there are rules that can be negotiated and others that can’t. Parents must show firmness in their decisions without becoming authoritarian, explaining why a particular rule must be adhered to, what is the final goal pursued and the benefits that can be obtained by complying with that rule. It is also the time in which children need more motivation to carry out certain tasks. Which is why parents have to do as much as they can to make these activities as attractive and motivating as possible. Scheduling and dividing home chores for each member of the family could help to create a sense of responsibility, improving the relationship among family members.
- Between the ages of nine and twelve, once certain habits have been established, parents should increase the expectations on their children. Activities such as cleaning their room, making their bed, taking out the trash, writing down phone messages, making small purchases, organising and planning homework, preparing simple dishes, tidying the bathroom, helping to clean and keep the house in order, walking the dog, having a set of house keys, going out on their own, sleeping at a friend's house. During this stage children begin to demand more and more independence, parents go from being supervisors to being more of an observer. This does not mean that the rules have to change, they should always remain firm without falling into authoritarianism. An activity that can contribute to the autonomy of children is to assign a weekly allowance so they can learn how to manage finances. This allowance should not be very high, enough to buy some snack or sports cards or to save it to buy something more significant. So that parents can teach their children how to manage their money, the consequences of spending it all on a whim and the importance of saving.
- Between the ages twelve to sixteen, being an observer parent can be difficult to maintain, especially when their children become teenagers. The challenge of this stage is maintaining rules and limits, teenagers need to differentiate themselves from others, specially from their parents. At the same time, they have the necessity to recognise themselves in their own family history without dissolving their new found independence. Which is why parents must encourage at the same time as limiting their move towards independence, adapting the rules and limits to their age and individual characteristics. In order to do this, parents should listen to their children, take their opinions into consideration, explain why particular limits should be maintained and show confidence in their abilities and judgement. During this age parents should educate their children on freedom as a fundamental part of forming their self-respect which is the ability for adolescents to choose the best way to live their life. It is necessary to let them create their own criteria so they can choose and decide for themselves. By nurturing this, they develop the ability to consider the positive and negative consequences before making any decision.
To sum up, autonomy is a fundamental part of a child’s development, and parents must help build it as much as they can. It is fundamental that while parents promote their children independence, they also encourage their study, hygiene, sleep and food habits, by stimulating their commitment, generosity and self-confidence. Therefore, they should encourage the development of confidence and security in their children while allowing them to explore the world by learning a sense of duty and responsibility.