In a conversation with a young adult who is in the process of adjusting to the work world, the subject became doing what you are told, or being asked to do. This young person said he has no trouble being asked to do something as long as he is told the reason for doing it. He then recalled when growing up being told by his parents when he asked why something needed to be done, “Because I said so.” To him, this was an unacceptable response as it was reasonable to want to know why something had to be done.
This raises the question of the role of autonomy, and the degree to which autonomous functioning is possible living in society with other people. The dictionary defines autonomy as being “self-governing, independent.” 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”. This is intended as a reference to independent nations, but it is striking 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.
Often two-year-old’s who had been easy to raise and manage, seem all at once to have arrived at a point of asserting their own likes and dislikes, their own ideas of what they want to do and don’t want to do, and their disinterest in their parent’s agenda. It is as if they had decided they should be subject to their own laws, not their parents’ wishes.
This 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.
There may be no better example of the difference in perspective between a still developing child and a parent whose responsibility is the further development of that child. Young children, still guided in some measure by the pleasure principle begin to assert their own wishes in defiance of parental requests. Parents, faced with the tasks and responsibilities of daily life, require children’s cooperation for basic tasks such as getting dressed, coming for meals, bath and bedtime.
Contemporary parents, trying to be democratic rather than authoritarian, often try to reason with a child, explaining often endlessly why what they are requesting is essential and is for the child’s own benefit. All to no avail. The problem is that the child’s motivation is to get to do what he wants to do while the parent is using reason to persuade the child to accede to the parent’s requests.
A child’s “why”, actually asked in the service of non-compliance, may seem like a reasonable question but to the parent who has already tried to answer it reasonably many times over, the only remaining answer is, “because I said so!” Summing up in frustration the whole area of parental responsibility combined with adult experience.
Growing up means finding a balance between one’s own desires and the need to respond to the expectations of parents and then others. Supporting children’s emerging autonomy, while they learn to operate within parental and social boundaries is a major challenge for parents.