On his seventh birthday, our oldest son unwrapped a simple red book light and a whole lot of freedom. We said, “You’re getting so big! We’re going to let you decide when you’re ready to go to sleep at night.”
And then he did this thing he does when he’s excited (which is often): he pretended to pass out—overwhelmed from the sheer joy of it all.
And my husband and I did that thing we do when we’re hoping we made the right decision: we exchanged a quick glance, metaphorical fingers crossed.
That’s the rub with autonomy. As parents, we are the ones to give it. And it’s up to us to decide when, how, and how much. Kind of a tricky endeavor. And probably the reason we wait so long to start dishing it out.
Our children need more autonomy to help develop agency and confidence—but this is harder now more than ever!
How Did We Get Here?
With the rise of helicopter parenting, today’s kids endure considerably more rules and enjoy fewer freedoms than children from previous generations. Ask your own parents—they’ll likely tell you a story (perhaps with an eye-roll).
In my own desire to parent well, I’ve struggled to find my footing. What’s the exact right amount of autonomy?
Over the years I found myself straddling a line. At two, my older son climbed heights that sent other playground parents scrambling to find his mother. I’d wave an acknowledgment and move not an inch. He’s got this. But try to tell me which show you want to watch? Sorry bud, no way.
And I look on with pride as my younger son, at four, carries his own backpack on long hikes, looks passersby in the eye, and engages in friendly conversation. But I’m the one who chooses what he wears. What gives?
I like to be in control. That’s what.
So when a struggle of the wills coincided with a well-timed audiobook, I decided to try and relinquish some of that control—if only a little bit.
A Book Light Saves The Night
Pandemic parenting led to some pretty lax bedtimes in our house. Still, kids need sleep and adults need alone time, so you can imagine how high tensions got after weeks on end of my older son staying up too late.
He’d be in his room—in his bed even—and call out, “I can’t fall asleep. Can you help? I need water!” And we’d ignore and help and lecture. An exhausting process for everyone involved (just not enough to induce sleep).
And then, one day, I found myself listening to The Self-Driven Child as they repeated a phrase over and over, suggesting we say it to our children: “I have confidence in your ability to make decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes.”
The authors went on to encourage parents to look for ways to give our kids more control over their day. A lightbulb moment for me—no joke!
So we gave up control. He now reads, writes, or draws until his eyes get nice and droopy and then he turns out the light—going to sleep earlier than he used to most nights, with little to no nagging from us.
Still, what to do about my preference for cute outfits? Or control of the TV? And will these little dudes ever get themselves ready to go in a timely manner?
How Moms in The Real World Handle Autonomy
My kids do chores and help around the house. They have freedom over some choices. Just not as much as they’d like and definitely not as much as they should. I can feel the tension telling me that autonomy offers the best way forward.
But how do I get there?
I wanted to talk to moms who are in the trenches right now. So that’s what I did.
I reached out to seven moms, parenting 21 kids ranging in age from three to 20, to ask about their real-world struggles and successes with autonomy.
A Few Common Themes: Can You Relate?
In chatting with these women, I was relieved to hear many of them face the same hesitations that I do when it comes to helping kids develop agency and giving them autonomy. Like:
- Let’s be honest, I’d rather just do the hard stuff myself.
- I can work much faster on my own.
- Only I will do things the right way.
I felt relieved, yes, but also inspired as these same moms went on to repeat similar wins their children experienced when they took ownership for themselves. Wins like:
- A sense of pride
- Growing confidence
- Creative problem-solving
And perhaps my favorite takeaway of all: by investing time in teaching our kids on the front end, we work ourselves out of some of the more tedious jobs on the back end. As one mom, Lisa, put it, “I don’t want to be the decision manager in my home.” Agreed!
The research backs this up. Medical News Today reports that a study by the journal, Child Development, “found that while this parenting technique [of offering autonomy] requires care and energy to maintain, it also provided something of a recharging effect for parents.”
Of course, as many women pointed out, boundaries are key. Kids do best making choices when their options are somewhat limited, and they’ll be better able to care for themselves if they’re shown how to do so correctly and with reasonable safety measures in place.
7 Ways to Practice Autonomy with Your Kids
Almost every mom I talked to touted the benefits—and the hilarious drawbacks—of letting kids choose their own clothes. Noted. Here are a few of my other favorite ideas offered by real-world moms:
1. Major on the majors. Says Christy, mom of two, “I try to be flexible with all choices except when related to safety and treating others well. I want them to feel free to question and negotiate within healthy boundaries of safety and kindness.”
2. Affirm your child’s intuition. Says Ashley, mom of five, “I find asking questions instead of making statements helps kids process doing tasks on their own. They’re more proud in the end and set up for success in the future.”
3. Sleep in. Says Katie, mom of two, “My son pours his own cereal and makes himself and his little brother toaster waffles. I can wake up slowly and have one fewer moment where they ask me for food.”
4. Sign kids up for an organization outside the home. Says Jen, mom of two, “Both of our boys are involved in Scouting, so we are big believers in encouraging them to be independent. Giving them the freedom to do more takes some pressure off of us at home and helps them feel like they’re contributing in a meaningful way.”
5. Leave kids home alone (gasp!). Says Lindsey, mom of five, “Teaching our kids to stay home while we go on a date encourages them to follow our rules even if we aren’t with them, be responsible by taking care of their siblings, get along with one another and clean up to our standards.”
6. Start early and take your time. Says Melissa, mom of two, “We slowly worked with our kids to learn to shower independently, starting when they were very young, with us observing at first to make sure they were getting themselves clean. Setting expectations early and praising accomplishments helped their motivation.”
7. Give kids ownership of specific tasks. Says Lisa, mom of three, “Teaching my son to do his own laundry helps him put things into perspective. It also helps him start making decisions for himself—should I refold these jeans or do they need to be washed?”
I’m taking notes for my own home over here, how about you?
In a few weeks, our youngest son will turn five and find a fun little present waiting for him: his very own simple red book light and a whole lot of freedom.