What do we mean by autonomy and why does it matter? The dictionary defines autonomy as being “self-governing, independent.” Also, in biology, it means to exist as an “independent organism and not as a mere form or state of development as an organism.” As parents, much of the time we are dealing with our children in a “state of development”, looking toward the time they will become “independent organisms”.
Of course, autonomy means more than independence in the sense of being able to take care of yourself physically. Self-governing implies being able to take responsibility for yourself and for your own behavior. The dictionary definition includes the phrase, “subject to its own laws”. Obviously, this is intended as a reference to independent nations, but I was struck by how well this idea could be applied to children, particularly at certain points in their development. It is just at the point that children decide they should be subject to their own laws that conflict can develop between parents and children.
Recently, numbers of parents have talked to me expressing concern about changes in their children’s behavior. Sweet, lovable children seemed to be turning overnight into willful, defiant little people. The behavior parents suddenly seemed to be encountering was turning their thoughts to questions about discipline. What was going on, and why was it happening?
These children, two year olds (plus or minus a few months) who had been easy to raise and manage, seemed all at once to have arrived at a point of asserting their own likes and dislikes, their own ideas of what they wanted to do and didn’t want to do, and their disinterest in their parent’s agenda. In short they had decided they should be subject to their own laws, not their parents’ wishes. This point in their development came as a shocking development to their parents, who were bewildered and worried.
This mysterious behavior is the behavior of emerging autonomy. All the children’s endowments, both innate and acquired through experience, have come together to produce the assertion of self that often is expressed as defiance of parents. As the butt of such expression – while struggling with the difficulties caused in simple day to day routines by our children’s resistance to our wishes and refusal to cooperate – we may see this as negative behavior to be nipped in the bud.
Actually, there is a positive side to this emerging autonomy that we need to think about. Children’s increasing language skills, perception, memory, intelligence and mobility are all operating now to help them gain mastery of their environment.
In fact, the potential for such mastery has been there from birth. We have learned so much from infant research in recent years about how even newborns with little capacity for mobility exercise preferences with regard to sensations they seek and perceptions they form. They are able to turn their heads from side to side and will turn to mother’s voice in preference to some other voice. They also prefer a human voice over other sounds.
Observing in an infant program for parents and children, I watched as a mom put her baby down in one spot and then went across the room to hang up her coat. Like a shot, the baby took off crawling toward her mom. But it was not her mom she was after. She had spotted mom’s tote bag on the floor and began pulling things out seeming to be looking for something she knew was in there.
Observing toddlers one can see their pleasure at accomplishing simple tasks, such as throwing their paper juice cups into a waste basket. Two year olds love to help the teachers carry blocks to be put away, or make choices about activities to pursue. Developing language skills play a big role in helping children gain mastery of their environment and pleasure in the feeling of mastery.
There is a push/pull aspect to development. The push comes from within the child – from inner longings that produce a thrust toward development. The pull comes from parents and others whose job it is to pull the child forward and upward. What a child experiences passively, such as being fed or bathed, he can eventually take over actively and become responsible in accomplishing himself. A child experiences pleasure in being taken care of, but also responds both to his parent’s expectation and satisfaction that her child will become independent.
An important part of growing up is finding a balance between one’s own desires and the need to respond to the expectations of parents and then others. In this process children test out their own voices and assert their own wills. The kind of response they get can help determine how confident they will come to feel in their own point of view, their own values and their own ideals.
Children talk back in the process of learning to speak up. How can we help our children express themselves, support their emerging autonomy, yet learn to operate within parental and social boundaries? (To be continued.)