7 Tips To Stimulate Your Child’s Autonomy
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself… You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their soul’s dwell in the house of tomorrow…”
Kahlil Gibran/ Lebanese-American poet (1883 – 1931)
Perhaps the hardest task we have as parents is letting go. Sending our precious children out into the big bad world so full of wonderful opportunity yet so full risk and danger. So preparing our offspring for that momentous trip ahead means helping them to achieve autonomy.
Autonomy means the capability to act independently. Your child will start in small ways – but as he is able to achieve more and more so his self-esteem and self-confidence will grow and he will be able to tackle bigger and bigger tasks. Eventually, he will become able to take his place in the world outside.
Your task is to guide, encourage and support your child on their journey to independence. It’s an exciting journey, and we offer seven tips to help you on your way.
1. Giving opportunities to practice being independent
Toddlers are driven to succeed and to assert their independence. There is so much that is outside their control – so you need to provide opportunities for them to try out the abilities they have and to develop the skills they will need.
During the years from one to three, children are growing fast – and developing fast. They are curious about the world and experiment to see what happens when they do things. Their ability to control their motor skills improves – and they are high energy packets of determination.
This is where you provide opportunities for them to succeed. You can teach them how to wash their hands before eating, you can show them how to ask for a snack and then get it themselves by placing the fruit bowl within easy reach. You can help them learn skills like dressing – imagine the satisfaction your child has when he first pulls on his jumper all by himself!
Like is full of opportunities for your child to show you that he can do it. He might take longer than you would – and he might not get it right the first few times– but the big grin he gives when after a big effort he has succeeded will be reward enough for you.
2. Chores help you and your child
Don’t you sometimes wish you had half as much energy as your toddler? Why not put all that energy to use? Give them tasks they can do – kids love to help and to feel valued. Let him help you carry the groceries to the car, he will be proud to demonstrate his strength! Let her help you put the clean laundry into her cupboard – she will like the feeling that things are where she can find them herself.
Naturally, you will make sure that the chores are not oppressive and are well within your child’s competence. But taking part in the family jobs is also one excellent way to help your impatient child to plan ahead, if she knows that she has to tidy away her toys before going out to play, she will learn that short term pleasure can cancel out longer-term gain. It’s an important lesson.
Being valued for their contribution to the family is a great start in life for creating a responsible adult, for academic achievement, and a successful career later life. There are also many qualities such a person will have when they eventually start their own family.
It seems that fewer families are integrating chores into their family lifestyle – which is a pity since it benefits the child and the whole family. Families help each other – you are not your kid’s slave!
3. Responsibility and trust
Even young children can take on responsibility if it is geared to their age and ability. And it gives them a big sense of pride in what they do, it shows them that you trust them. (Mind you, you will have to oversee what they are doing – the cats must not go hungry because your child has forgotten to feed them.)
In fact, helping to look after animals is a good way to start children taking responsibility for something with even less choice than they have. Filling the bird feeder in the garden, checking that there is water down for the dog and telling you if the water in the fish tank looks cloudy are all responsibilities your child can undertake – with close supervision.
Other important responsibilities could be such things as bringing in the mail, matching pairs of socks after the washing is done, and putting the shopping groceries away. You might see them as chores, but to your child they are responsibilities, and they feel they are contributing to family life.
When you give your child responsibility you are showing them you trust them. asking your child to undertake certain tasks not only helps you as they learn to complete them but also gives your child a sense of purpose. They can learn to tidy up their bed in the morning, to brush their teeth, and to get dressed. It’s best not to do these jobs for him if he is fully capable of doing them himself – although to begin with you will need to help. Remind him, give him the time to complete the task, and make sure that when he has done them then there is a nice breakfast or a visit to the play park or some other “reward”.
4. Giving a choice makes life easier!
Your children probably have favourite tasks and things they do not want to do! When you let your child choose which job to do then they will be happy doing it and you will be less stressed. It gives them a sense of power and that you are listening to them, and the chances are they will take pride in making a very good job of it.
You can find choices everywhere! It might need to be a limited choice – but a somewhat rebellious child is less likely to refuse outright if given a choice. It is also a good initiation into decision making – another necessary skill.
Regarding chores, for example, you may find he loves to match socks but hates- and kids have very powerful emotions – he hates to carry the shopping. Knowing this helps you decide in advance what he is happy to do and what you will not ask him to help with. It is easier to do it yourself than to have a sulky child “helping you”.
Of course, there are some things that are not a choice – holding your hand when you cross a road is just one example. But if it’s “which dress to wear?” – give a limited choice of two suitable garments.
5. Patience – your child needs time to complete her tasks
You will need patience -and sometimes massive amounts of patience as your child starts to assert their independence and tries to achieve more and yet more. You will need to leave time for them to try to do the tasks by themselves – even though you could do it in less than half the time.
You might need to bite your tongue to prevent yourself from interfering – because that is what your contribution can be seen as – interference! Some children give up easily and welcome your assistance – but when the job is well within their capabilities then you need to sit back and let them get on with it.
There are many times when you will watch their struggles and long to interfere – and once the task seems to be too much then your help and encouragement are essential. But never, ever make them feel they have failed – we learn by our mistakes – and we all make many, many of them. Just remember the wonderful sense of achievement when we get it right after a hard struggle!
There might be days when the jobs in hand really are too much – your child might be feeling unwell or super excited. You know your child so you can make the necessary adjustments. Giving your child the time she needs to complete her task is one of the gifts you can give your child. So often life takes over and we rush to get things done. Make things easy for yourself, cut back on non-essential jobs, simplify routines, and give yourselves time to take the pressure off.
6. Encourage your child. There is no failure – only feedback
As your child journeys on his own pathway to competence, he will make mistakes. The path isn’t always as smooth as we would like! But your encouragement is paramount. Tell them “You can do this – I know you can.” And when he succeeds – be generous in your praise.
When parents show respect for their child’s ideas they are building up his self-esteem and confidence. Let your child experiment, you never know, they might find a better way of doing something than you yourself have thought of! After all, there is no failure only feedback – and you can help your child to understand and benefit from the feedback and not be discouraged by criticism. When your child learns to risk taking initiatives all things become possible.
We all have to live with the knowledge that we are not perfect. When mistakes happen just remind yourself that your child is – hopefully – learning something new.
7. Modify the environment for success
There are things you can do to modify the child’s environment to help them succeed. After all, children live in a world designed for giants from their perspective. It can be very frustrating!
A small stool by the sink might encourage your child to help with the washing up. Placing their clothes in easy-to-reach places helps them learn to dress without your help. Most children can dress themselves by the age of six, and feel a sense of pride. You might like to provide child-size equipment like a small cordless vacuum cleaner that your child will love to push around – they can be very thorough!
You could provide a small jug of milk that they can pour onto their cereal without tipping out the entire carton. And if they help to lay the table make sure they can reach the plates without climbing unsteadily up onto the cupboards!
A brief word about children who have special needs
It can be surprising how well these children cope with their disability. And it’s so important that they are encouraged to help themselves as much as possible and to learn how to take some responsibility for their health. They want to be as independent as anyone else.
There are some children who may be unable to achieve autonomy. They may lack the physical coordination or they are less able to understand things. But you can still provide choices and tasks to match their abilities. They need the security of regular routines. They might be able to help you by lying in a certain position, for example. You can use distraction and comforters to help make life a little easier.
Things to avoid in helping hour child achieve autonomy
- Not letting go.
- Constant supervision where it’s really interference.
- Not giving your child the chance to solve difficulties themselves.
- Repeating instructions again and again.
- Lack of trust in your child.
Children have a huge internal drive for autonomy – and your toughest task is to prepare them for the big, bad but wonderful world.
If you follow these tips to help your child achieve autonomy, it can make the process not only easier but also more satisfying. Allowing them to spread their wings requires patience and time. Allowing them responsibilities shows them that you have faith in them and giving them choices makes everything so much easier. You can even make adjustments to their environment- after all, living in a land made for giants can be frustrating.
Above all, give them your faith that they are competent, that we make mistakes and learn by them. Let them know that you are there to support and encourage his or her every step of the way.