Remember that feeling the first time you drove out of your parents’ driveway? There’s nothing quite like that exhilarating feeling of freedom and independence. Children feel that each time they achieve something big and new on their own. A seven-year-old making themselves breakfast for the first time, a five-year-old being allowed to take their building elevator all by themselves, a three or four year-old getting the mail from the mailbox, a one year old toddling away from their parents and looking back to see that they are still there.

Supporting young children’s autonomy has been found to have positive effects on their development, including benefits to their mastery of skills, executive functioning, socialization, and their overall wellbeing.

Failing to support children’s autonomy, on the other hand, or actively restricting it by being overly controlling, has been associated with increased levels of anxiety in kids.

Parents who support the development of autonomy are involved in their child’s life but encourage independence and problem-solving skills. It’s important for parents to give children both age-appropriate autonomy and the freedom to make their own choices. 

5 ways you can increase your child’s sense of autonomy

  1. More chores, more choices, more freedom
  2. Educate yourself
  3. Make space for risky play
  4. Focus on the environment itself
  5. Scaffold and model

1. More chores, more choices, more freedom. 

You know the age old expression: with freedom comes responsibility. And so it stands to reason that as we ask our kids to help more at home with chores like dishes, laundry, putting their things away independently, helping with siblings, etc…we should loosen the restrictions a bit and highlight some areas where they can have more agency. 

Let them know that helping at home and following basic family rules will allow for increased choices and freedom. It’s not a prize for good behavior but simply the natural result of trust and proven capability.

2. Educate yourself

There are three questions to ask yourself here:

  1. What are other parents allowing their kids to do?
  2. What do the experts say?
  3. What do you know about your own unique child that may inform your decisions around their readiness to take on new things? 

Knowing what is developmentally appropriate for your child at their age or level will allow you to know where the next step is. This can help you understand what your child can or should be striving to reach. Children do develop differently and each is on their own unique timeline. One child might be ready to climb something very tall at the playground at the age of five and another child may need to wait to climb up there until they are nine. It is a parents’ job to make these decisions. 

Talk to other parents, your child’s teachers, school psychologists, and read up on your child’s developmental trajectory, what should they be working on, and where can you ease up and pull back to allow them more space to grow and problem solve.

3. Make space for risky play

There is a lot of research about the benefits of risky play. Risky play is play that is thrilling. It may involve challenges, heights, tools, rough and tumbling, and testing limits, with the possibility of physical injury. When a child can overcome a fear or barrier without help from an adult they are empowered with a sense of independence and self-efficacy. 

Most parents probably wouldn’t send their two- or three-year-old out to the edge of a busy road to pick up the delivered newspaper on their own. The parent understands that while the child may know the road is dangerous they may not yet have the body awareness or self-control to stay off the road. When it comes to risk, age cannot be the sole determining factor. One five-year old’s ability isn’t necessarily the same as their neighbor’s or classmate's ability, so risky play decisions cannot be made by parents solely on the grounds of what peers are doing. 

There are some children who are incredibly competent with their physical motor skills and can handle a lot of risky situations well and there are other children who simply wouldn’t be able to at the same age. For parents, understanding the appropriate amount of risk is a matter of assessing their child’s cognitive ability, what they’ve been exposed to previously, and what they are ready for developmentally. Finding and allowing for the right amount of risk is a challenge parents must face to help their child develop their sense of autonomy.

4. Focus on the environment itself 

Many educational philosophies embrace the environment itself as critical to the child’s developing sense of autonomy. Maria Montessori said, “The work of education is divided between the teacher and the environment.” Loris Malaguzzi, founder and director of the Reggio Emilia municipal preschools, believed the physical classroom itself functioned like a third teacher. He believed that the classroom environment can help shape a child’s identity. 

A child’s home can also be a setting designed to be both functional as well as reflective of the child’s learning and interest. Some people choose to let their home be overrun by their child’s things, play kitchens and large toys in each and every room. Some parents keep all of their kids’ things meticulously hidden from sight, choosing instead to carefully curate what is brought out and when. 

There is of course a balance somewhere in between the two home lifestyles, wherein the child can act independently, make choices based on their interests, and engage with their family using materials that are both enticing and relevant to their current development. It does take thought and planning on the part of the parent(s) but if you think about your child’s home environment as not just a space to live in but also as a space to feel relaxed, creative, social, ready to learn, and be inspired, you can spend a short amount of time, a few times a year, making small changes to what is out, available, where things are stored, and whether they increase your child’s growing autonomy.

5. Scaffold and model

In construction, scaffolding helps supply extra support to the building being erected. When the building is finished, the scaffolding is removed, and the structure can stand independently. 

Parents who use scaffolding when teaching their child a new skill offer children similar support. One doesn’t suddenly turn to their child one day and say, today you are going to make us a spaghetti dinner and then step out of the kitchen, hoping that the child succeeds. It is a gradual process marked by learning and a desire to trust and be trusted. 

Make this process intentional; share with your child that there is in fact a process. Model it first. Then scaffold, allowing for increasingly faded support until your child has mastered the skill with confidence. This may go without saying: You might be thinking, “of course I’m going to show my child what to do”, but outlining it to the child, highlighting the learning process as well as the pulling away of the scaffolds, is what makes it intentional and allows for deeper and more meaningful connections and more pride at accomplishing whatever the skill is.

While modeling and scaffolding something for your child, be sure to pose problems and ask questions, providing just enough assistance so the child can attempt a task at a skill level just beyond what they can do on their own. 

For example, you might say, you’ve been having me change your fish tank water for a year now and you’ve been wanting to do it on your own, any ideas how you might be able to do it on your own? How will you know when it needs changing? How can you get around having to lift the tank?

Helping your child develop their sense of autonomy from a young age is important to their growth as independent individuals. But remember: Every child is different and you know your child best. If they are not ready for this level of independence, it is best not to push. Instead, focus on scaffolding and modeling and let them try every so often. Eventually, they will feel comfortable and ready to take on more responsibility and they will feel proud of their accomplishments.

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