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Fostering Autonomy in Children

Submitted by Heather on Wed, 01/30/2019 - 12:06

Our role as parent and teacher is to find ways to support children during their journey towards autonomy. The seeming complete helplessness in infancy starts us out with a role of meeting almost all their needs.  We are faced with how to grow our parenting as our children grow, and how to help them become more autonomous as they get older.

From the time a baby is born on, skill building is a constant part of a child’s day and is sometimes frustrating and difficult.  Yet much of this development is typically attained with great internal motivation, perseverance, and excitement. The natural inclination towards growth is ever present, especially in the early years. When a baby learns to walk, usually they fall or stumble a multitude of times before finally gaining the balance, strength and coordination needed to walk. Even with errors, the process is fulfilling and remains important to the child. This inherent, internal satisfaction and motivation is enormous. There is a lovely quote by Winston Churchill that reminds me of the spirit of this kind of perseverance that young children demonstrate as they attain more and more autonomy and capacity, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

As adults, our lens can be less optimistic. We often lose some tenacity as we get older. Failure is often confused with error and learned as something to avoid, when in fact most learning requires a great deal of trial and a great deal of error. When adults think about failure, we might feel defeated, frustrated to the point of giving up pursuit of whatever it was we were hoping to attain.  

Trusting children’s process is a huge part of the picture of our supportive role. Listening to children’s emotions (frustration, disappointment) allows them to trust their own capacity to recover and persevere. Our trust in their internal resources reinforces their own trust in their own process for future challenges.

We learn best through experience. If someone tells us a new fact, we may memorize that fact, but often true understanding and even extending that knowledge to new things requires more of us than listening. Learning and skill building is often attained through actual attempts and the willingness to move forward through countless errors.

It is easy for parents to serve as a crutch for children along the way. Often, we are motivated to step in by the fear of letting our children “fail” or get frustrated, coupled with our own desire to get going to the next activity, or to keep things clean and tidy, and we might take over and get in our child’s way of learning. In our hurried agendas, the need for efficiency and ease is often at odds with what children need.  Some examples of common parent interference are found when we think about how involved we can get in feeding and dressing our children, packing up their lunches without their assistance, or how we help them wash their hands, brush their teeth, etc. 

Early childhood development and skill building is immense, so how do we better lend our support to our young children in learning new skills and continuing their growth towards autonomy?

Children need time and opportunities to practice new skills. When we give our children the opportunity to dress themselves, we need to be patient and okay with it taking longer. Understanding our timing ahead of time and creating space in the schedule can help us allow this time. It’s not always possible, and it doesn’t have to be something they do each day. However, finding times when children can try on their own is an important part of their learning.

One strategy that helps in the moment of parent “what-do-I-do-now??” is to ask ourselves how we can help without taking over. This is essentially figuring out how and if our child needs scaffolding.  Often the answer is no, and the best thing is backing off entirely, but sometimes just asking a question or providing some information is a great deal of help and allows children to more easily problem solve and move to their learning goal. Consider a preschooler learning to pack away their lunch. If they struggle to fit the lid on right because there is a latch in the way, we might just put our hands in our pockets (to keep our hands from doing it for them) and say “Oh, I see there is a latch there, maybe that’s keeping it from closing?” If your child seems frustrated to the point of giving up, you can show them your empathy by asking “That looks like it’s really hard, can I try to make it a little easier for you?”

Help when you are asked for help, otherwise you may want to restrain yourself. It is often the case that children must push their parents away with the declaration of “I want to do it MYSELF!”, to assert their capacity in gaining new skills. Adults want to teach and help but what we do in that vein may not actually be helpful to our children’s learning. We also have a drive to show our children what we can do, because we naturally feel proud of being able to do things, which can play out in our relationships with our children, but this is also sometimes not very helpful to their learning process.

Opportunities for children to help us with the daily chores and meal prep is another way to help them build these skills.  Finding ways to invite and involve young children from an early age helps grow their understanding of family community and stewardship of the household. Giving children access to a shelf in the fridge or a cupboard with some snacks and plates, helps them gain autonomy with some of their feeding and self care. Preparing dinner together as a family is a great way to combine quality time together with the routines of the day.

Trust and responsibility. At Children’s Community School, my child has been encouraged to pack her own lunch since Kindergarten and it is one area our family has eventually given over to her. This wasn’t easy for me at first, I wanted to be in the role of feeding her. But as a grown woman who often doesn’t plan my own meals well, I saw the importance of this early role in her own learning of life long self-care, and eventually we just stated it as a responsibility that was hers. She wasn’t thrilled with this new chore, but she does it regularly and if she doesn’t bring enough food, she will eat more when she gets home and bring more food the next day, it is all a part of the learning curve for her.

Modeling. Whether modeling your own self-care or starting to learn a new skill, children learn most from our example. If we only do what we have already mastered in life, we are not modeling practice, trials and learning. A powerful way to help our children continue to see the importance of perseverance, is to share our stories of learning and struggle in our own lives. This modeling can come through conversations sharing about how difficult it was to get to your goals as well as with taking up learning something new for your child to witness (like piano or a new language). Children who witness their parents learning see that learning at any stage of life is a process that has ups and downs.

And finally, when inviting your child to try something new, refrain from saying “it’s easy” to your child.  This is a pretty common statement that is meant to encourage children to try new things, but often backfires. The sentiment either diminishes their experience if they succeed or it can sabotage their efforts. If it feels hard to them, they might give up because it was supposed to be “easy.”

We hope this topic was helpful to you on your parenting journey.