Thursday, March 15, 2007


Autonomy by Jayne Martin-Dressing

What I want more than anything right now for my children is a sense of autonomy-a self-confidence that says, "I can do it." What I'm getting a lot of these days is, "I need help," "I can't," "You do it." I'm not talking about buckling the seat belt or putting the toothpaste on the brush (well, okay, I am talking about that too), but something larger, something that starts now in childhood where I have to do some letting go, and accepting that things will be far less than mediocre much of the time. I have come to realize that one of the hardest things about parenting is that I'm not ultimately responsible for every outcome in my child's life-good or bad. It is incredibly difficult not to rush in and solve problems, like the big homework project when a child has made poor choices about how they've spent their time, or when a child is obviously putting his shirt on backwards or the shoes on the wrong feet. We don't want children to ever have a rough spot in childhood these days, even if it means they are gaining a sense of independence.

I hear many conversations at the University where I teach that involve faculty and staff complaining about "helicopter parents." I've been shocked to learn of parents who call their young adult student's professors to explain absences or register for their classes or ask to speak to their advisors. They were so afraid their kid would screw something up that they were still, with children 18 and over, making sure that didn't happen. It occurred to me that creating a sense of autonomy in our children doesn't start in college; it starts with allowing the first grader to take responsibility for homework that isn't complete, and encouraging a 3rd grader to ask for directions in the hall rather than walking him to his classroom everyday. It starts with feeding them what the rest of the family is eating, and reminding them that they're not going to like every meal in life, and yes, they may be hungry later. Autonomy is not to be confused with letting the child make all their own choices (no, bedtime is not an option), but it is about encouraging children to be responsible, to learn from mistakes, to take ownership of their ability to dress themselves, feed themselves, trust their instincts, and be self sufficient individuals. And ironically, this begins with the simple acts of brushing their teeth, washing their hair, dressing themselves. And no, they may not reach all the molars, rinse out the conditioner, or even pick out matching socks, but allowing them to do these things sends them the message that they are growing, they are learning, and they are capable. And we are capable of letting them.


StuntMom said...

I love this article. I too had such a hard time of letting go once oldest was capable of getting dressed. I really wanted to encourage the independence so it was a struggle seeing that my daughter thought orange tights look great with the green dress. But really it was me trying to get over my own vanity. People would stop her and say, "hey I love your outfit" as a way of encouraging her, knowing full well she gets herself dressed. I no longer need to explain to others when her dress is on backwards, I just accept that the person questioning me knows it was an independence thing, that yes, at 39 years of age, I do know that tags go on in the back.

As for the brushing of the teeth, since we are now brushers, I alternate with them brushing, and I come through a few times a week to hit the molers, not that I'm really worried, it just makes me feel like I'm doing my part since we were neglectful brushers for so long.

marshkn said...

So true. I think one of the most enabling things to do is to choose something difficult even when you don't have to do it. There will be plenty of times in life when we are forced to take the more difficult path, due to circumstances beyond our control. While our children are young, it is great to set up patterns of independence, so that those patterns feel comfortable to them when they are grown. Protecting young children is indeed a parental responsibility, but nurturing their ability to spread their wings and soar is a gift. Like you said in an earlier comment, Jayne, sometimes the slide is more important than the germs that might be on it.