All children have a right to autonomy. This means they should be in control of their bodies, minds, and time.
Mainstream parenting is firmly against this idea. The majority of people believe that all decisions about a child’s life and even their own bodies, from how they dress, to what they eat, to when they sleep, to how they spend their time, to control of their personal possessions, are the right of the parent.
Evidently, human rights only apply to people of a certain age.
I obviously disagree.
“Autonomy is characterized by a feeling of being free. People are happier and healthier when they feel autonomous. This sense of well-being is maximized when young people behave in a way that’s consistent with their internal values and wishes, as opposed to the values and wishes of others. Support for autonomy also promotes empathy. When our need for autonomy is satisfied we’re more likely to feel positive.” -Teresa Graham Brett, Parenting for Social Change
I think the main reason people are so vehemently opposed to extending the right of autonomy to children is that they just cannot imagine how it would work, or what it would look like. Very few people have seen examples of this and were themselves strictly controlled as children. Not to mention the warnings about ‘kids these days’ not being controlled enough and turning into terrible monsters who eat chocolate all day, cut up all the furniture, and are probably plotting to take over the world.
Let’s all calm down a minute.
In our house and the houses of many of the other families I know, children have freedom and autonomy. They choose what to do and when, as long as it doesn’t infringe on another person’s rights, and our homes have not descended into chaos. In fact, the children are kind, respectful, helpful, generous, capable, motivated, and awesome company (you can read more about that here).
This is our normal, and it’s actually really simple. It just means treating children like human beings, with as many rights as everyone else in the house. I’d love to shed some light on what autonomy looks like in everyday life, in the hopes that people will see that it’s not actually complicated, it’s not risky, and it is achievable.
What Does Life Look Like for Autonomous Kids?
It looks like children choosing their own clothing, with no judgment or coercion. Children have awesome style, even if it’s not conventional. Clothing is one way they may express themselves, and we accept them for that!
It looks like conversations and sharing information so children can make choices about appropriate clothing.
“We’re going on a bush walk today, some other shoes might be safer to walk in”
“It’s really cold outside, do you think you could choose something warmer today?”
It means if those requests are refused then we throw some shoes or a jacket in the car anyway, in case it is needed later, instead of forcing the issue.
It’s not making any modification to your child’s body without their consent. That includes haircuts, ear piercing, hair coloring, circumcision, etc. People do not have the right to make these decisions for other people. Children are people too.
It looks like people eating on their own schedules, according to their own hunger. There is no forced eating, no coercion e.g. ‘one more bite for Mummy’, no punishment or threats, no rewards, no arbitrary rules like ‘no dessert if you don’t eat your dinner’. It’s providing healthy foods, letting children have an input into what they would like for dinner, and making space for them to help prepare things. It’s enjoying eating together without any pressure.
It’s recognising that the best way to promote healthy eating is to not comment on someone’s eating habits at all.
It’s focusing on your own limits, instead of trying to change your child…
“I’m sorry, I don’t feel able to make different meals for everyone at dinner time, how can we make sure everyone is happy? I could leave some meat and veggies out before adding the sauce so you can eat them separately/ you could help yourself to a sandwich or piece of fruit/ I could leave the parts you don’t like off your plate, etc”
It’s people choosing sleep at a time that makes sense for their own body, no matter their age. Adults are free to sleep when tired, and children can too. It’s not having set bedtimes, but helping children to wind down, listen to their bodies, and find sleep when they are ready.
It’s communication and problem-solving when needs don’t align…
“I’m feeling really sleepy and I want to go to bed now, are you ready?”
“I’d really like to go to bed, maybe you could come and lie with me until you’re ready for sleep so that I can rest?”
“It’s getting late now and I like to relax in the evenings, I’m sorry I don’t feel like playing right now, is there something else we can do together that’s quiet?”
“Other people are sleeping and I’m worried that the noise will disturb them, could you please try to be quiet?”
It’s supporting an understanding of our bodies needs, empathising with tiredness after a late night, and helping children tune into their body’s own requirements for sleep.
“You’re feeling tired? Last night was a late one, wasn’t it? It seems like you’re body is needing more rest. How can we make sure you’re getting the rest you need?”
Read more about autonomous sleep here.
It looks like conversations about matters of hygiene, instead of rules and force. It’s realistic expectations and compromise.
It sounds like…
“Hey you didn’t shower yesterday and you’ve been playing outside in the dirt today, want to come have a quick shower now so that you don’t get dirt all through your bed?”
“I understand, you don’t want to right now, when would be a good time for you?”
“How can we make this easier for you? Would you like a bath? Could I sit with you and read you a book? Would you like bubbles? Do you want to do it super quickly?”
“I’m worried that if you don’t brush your teeth you could get cavities, it’s really important to brush every day, can I help you?”
It’s finding creative solutions like nice tasting toothpaste or leave in conditioner that helps get the tangles out more easily. It’s accepting a work-in-progress. One missed teeth brushing or some grubby feet in the bed are not the end of the world, you can try again tomorrow.
It’s not forcing affection on children. It’s asking for a kiss or cuddle before you do it (or don’t do it, depending on the answer). It not using guilt to try and get your way, like ‘oh I am sad you won’t give me a cuddle’. It’s respecting children’s rights to control who they show affection to, or not, and empowering them to know they don’t have to be responsible for other people’s feelings about that.
It’s standing up for them when others try to do the same thing.
It’s encouraging them to be respectful of other people’s autonomy as well. It’s being supportive and empathetic during disagreements with siblings as they learn to navigate this area.
“Your sister would like some space right now. I can’t let you touch her. Remember, her body her choice. Is there something I can help with instead?”
It’s children choosing how they spend their time. Whether that’s playing outside, reading books, playing on the computer, painting, watching tv, sleeping, eating, writing letters, seeing friends, going to the park, or a million other things.
It’s negotiations when needs don’t align…
“You really want to go and see friends today, but your sister doesn’t feel like going out? How can we work this out? Is there a way that we can make going out easier for you? Or are you happy to stay home today and go out tomorrow instead?”
“I have an appointment, I’m sorry but we have to go soon, would you like to bring that toy with you so you can continue playing?”
“You both want to use the computer? How can we make sure everyone gets to do what they need to do?”
It’s respecting children’s property. If a child owns something, whether toys or clothes, then it is theirs to do with what they like. It’s not confiscated at the whim of parents, or used as a bargaining tool. Children’s possessions are theirs. They don’t have to share them and they cannot be taken away against their will.
It looks like trusting children to know their own bodies and capabilities. Not telling them ‘that’s too hard for you’ or ‘you’re too little’. But letting them try. Letting them experience life. Being there to support them if they struggle, but allowing them to own their own experiences instead of taking over. Children learn by doing, and they want to be involved in real things. Respecting autonomy means letting them do that.
It’s speaking in a way that conveys consent, rather than orders and demands. There is no ‘because I said so’ or ‘do as you’re told’. Children have a right to question, disagree, negotiate, and express their view. It’s asking for cooperation instead of demanding compliance.
Read more about the language of consent here.
Information and Support
Respecting children’s autonomy means open discussions about health and safety. It means providing information about why certain things (i.e. hygiene) are important, supporting children to find the way they are most comfortable to achieve these things, and empathising when it feels hard. It means communicating nonviolently, listening to feelings and needs, and finding ways that everyone is comfortable with. It’s recognising that children want to make healthy choices, and they might need some guidance in that area, but they don’t need force. It’s an understanding that in the context of a respectful and connected relationship, children are able to listen to their bodies and their needs, without the influence of power plays.
It’s being as respectful as possible in cases of medically necessary treatment.
It’s recognising the power of modeling. If you want children to be kind, respectful, helpful, polite, and empathetic, then you yourself must show them kindness, respect, helpfulness, manners, and empathy. You cannot override their autonomy and then be surprised when they are demanding of you.
Autonomy is basically living with children as equals. Although we may have different needs, we respect everyone’s right to make their own choices, for their own body.
It does not mean children will be destructive and out of control. It does not mean we don’t support and guide them when needed. It does not mean our own rights are compromised. It is simply taking the time to have a conversation. It is working with our children, instead of against them.
It means figuring out the best way for everyone to feel comfortable and have their needs met, instead of simply dishing out rules and demands. It’s not about what works in terms of compliance, but what children deserve in terms of rights and respect.
It is entirely possible to live with children and respect their autonomy. In fact, it’s a lot more peaceful.
“Controlling parenting, despite its mainstream acceptance, damages children even as it fails to achieve the very goals on which it is allegedly focused. We must actively and resoundingly reject controlling parenting in spite of the cultural pressure we may face.” –Teresa Graham Brett