More About Emerging Autonomy

Growing up can be hard to do – especially for parents.  Often a developmental step means more work for mother.  When children start to feed themselves it can mean a mess to clean up.  With toilet training there will be accidents – easier to change a diaper.  A bed instead of a crib?  You may have a frequent nighttime visitor.  Still, we feel proud when our children accomplish these steps and it seems well worth the effort.

Children’s push toward independence brings with it another set of issues.  A baby may not like everything you do to her, but there is little she can do about it except protest by crying or squirming when you hold her.  Physical mobility and the acquisition of language change the picture.  A child can now run away from you or simply refuse to do what you are asking.  He can also just take what he wants from the refrigerator or climb on a chair to get the cookies from the high shelf.

Parents at this point begin to wonder what they can do to make their child listen.  They may try time-out or think about some other form of discipline.  Complaints generally fall into two categories: children’s resistance to routines and insistence on “having their own way.”  When independence takes the form of dressing oneself or going to the toilet, it is most welcome.  When it is expressed as refusal to get dressed or take a bath, that is another matter.

Here is where we confront the conflict between our wish that children be able to assert themselves, and the concern we feel when that self-assertion is expressed as defiance of us, their parents.  Are self-assertion and defiance the same?  Is self-expression always defiance and is children’s defiance self-expression?  Can children assert themselves without becoming defiant?

Actually, there is an important distinction here.  Children are, in fact, asserting their own wishes.  It feels like defiance to us if it runs counter to our wishes.  And it can become defiance when we insist on their following our wishes.  A child may not be ready to get dressed.  He would rather continue to play.  We need him to get dressed because we have to get ready to leave the house.  If we persist, the child’s wish to follow his own idea can turn into defiance, and that’s when an unpleasant confrontation ensues.

The same thing can happen when a child wants a cookie before lunch.  Mom says “No”, and the child defiantly goes and gets the cookie himself.  Or if it is beyond his reach, a temper outburst may follow.  This is often what parents mean when they say, “He wants his own way” and has a tantrum if he doesn’t get it.

Since wanting to have it our way can lead to this kind of result, does that mean we have to let children have it their way?  And if that is unacceptable, is there a way to “make them listen?”  We’re back to the question of how we can encourage self-assertion yet teach children that “you can’t always get what you want”, and that what other people want also has to be considered.

Recognizing that children want to be in charge of themselves before they are really capable of doing so is an important step in the process.  It can change the tone of an interaction between parent and child if we know that a child starts out simply expressing his own wish rather than defying ours.  It can help us not to start out with an anticipation of defiance or a negative response as if we have already been defied.

When children first develop an awareness that they are separate beings from their parents this discovery is quite heady.  This is what leads to their early infatuation with the word “NO!”  It gives voice to that feeling of being a separate person.  Parents are often bewildered by the fact that children will say no to things they really like to do, like going to the playground, or taking a bath. 

The point is they don’t really mean no, they just like the ability to say it and to act as if they are in charge.  The most helpful thing you can do is not to respond to the “no” as if it is a deterrent to what you are trying to accomplish.  Trying to “reason” with a two year old and to persuade him that he really loves to go to the playground will only turn it into a real conflict and battle of wills.  You can acknowledge that he is saying no, even while you are helping him get ready to go.

In a way this is true even as children get a little older and more invested in the reality of asserting themselves, not just the feeling of doing so.  Our children’s self-assertion turns into defiance as we try to impose our own will.  The key here is not doing what a child wants, but respecting what he wants.  We can be more successful by acknowledging what his own wishes are, rather than by trying to talk him out of them or overpower him with threats of punishment.

The struggle to become independent and autonomous continues as children develop and, as we know, is a big issue again in adolescence.  These early years are a time when we can begin to teach children both the rewards and limits of self-assertion.

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