When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

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.

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

“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).

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

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?

Clothing

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

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.

Body modification

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.

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

Food

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”

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

Sleep

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?”

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

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.

Hygiene

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?”

and…

“I understand, you don’t want to right now, when would be a good time for you?”

or…

“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?”

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

Or…

“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.

Affection

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.

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

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?”

Time

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.

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

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?”

Property

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.

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

Trust

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.

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

Language

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.

Modeling

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.

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

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

When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

15 thoughts on “When Children Do Whatever They Want: What Autonomy Looks Like

  1. I believe one of the roots of controlling parenting is a misconception of what authority is. Because parents do have authority over their children. I think the best definition of authority is “power to influence”, but society confuses authority with “right to control” – which is actually nonexistent. Nobody has the right to control anyone except themselves. When we look at authority as “power to influence” things actually make more sense. As the origin of our children’s life, we are automatically the most influential people in their lives. Even if a parent chooses to opt out of their child’s life, he still has authority over her. We know that because a child who has been rejected by a parent in this way has a profound damage done to his soul. If you’re the parent of a child whatever you choose to do will influence your child’s life like nothing else. Let’s use this power to love unconditionally and show respect. To accept them for who they are and to guide them gently. It’s the best we can do.

    The word author is closely related to that. An author has power over what he writes in his book, but he has no control over how the readers receive his message. The better his skill at choosing the right words to express himself the clearer the message is received. I think this is exactly what you describe for parenting. When your values, your actions and your words line up your children will most likely become the kind of people you wish for them to be (not in a sense of making them into something you imagine but in the sense of living according to the values that you aim for) But if we think we can raise kind kids by being demanding or punishing to them that just messes up the message we are sending them. It creates confusion. It makes it harder for the child to figure out how this life is supposed to work and it most likely creates some damage to their self worth.

    • Yes! I love this quote “The reality that adults have more power than children, however, does not mean that it is appropriate or necessary for us to exercise control over them. Rather, it means that we have an obligation to consciously choose how to use our power. We can choose to use our greater power to control children and coerce them to do what we want. We can choose to do nothing with our power. But we can also choose to use our power to support, assist, and facilitate the growth and learning of children in ways that affirm their personal power, dignity, and humanity.” -Teresa Graham Brett

  2. I feel so sad because I try hard to do it this way but I get so frustrated when my son does things that I don’t like. And if I ask him to not do that or explain why I ask him that, or tell him that I don’t like it when he is doing that, or explain what he can do instead, he ignores me, and goes on with what he is doing. I feel frustrated because I treat him with respect and listen to his needs, but he doesn’t listen to my needs. It makes me so angry that I yell and afterwards I feel guilty. How can I get out of this?? (My son is 2,5)

    • I’m a big fan of the wrap around concept that I’ve heard best described through a Brene Brown class online. It is basically the acknowledgement that we aren’t always going to get it “just right” when it comes to interacting with kids (or anyone for that matter). So instead of attempting to hold yourself to some form of unattainable perfection, when you recognize that you’ve made a mistake (or just something you have realized you want to do differently) you reconnect and get it right. This can be 10 seconds, minutes, days, etc. after the interaction…once you realize that you have a better idea, you “wrap back around” and communicate the new understanding. So to use your example, after the above happens, you could take as much time as you need to be calm (so that you can speak from a place of compassion and not shame) and then kindly let your child know exactly how you feel: “I’m so sorry that I yelled at you. That was not a good choice that I made. Next time, I will try to…” You could also add a statement about your feelings, “I feel frustrated because I try to treat you with respect and listen to your needs, but I don’t feel like you are listening to my needs. Next time I am feeling upset, I will take a deep breath and talk to you more calmly about how I am feeling.” He may not understand everything at his age, but it’s never too early to model good behavior and scaffold learning by including new words in sentences as well as familiar words. It’s also important to be aware that he likely does not know what you need, so using “I statements” is a great way to share how you feel and what is important to you at a given moment. With all of this, just keep in mind that we are usually not very good at things we haven’t practiced, so you may have to do this a lot at first, but please know that you will, without a doubt, get a little better at it every time you do it. (And when that happens, remember to give yourself credit for your effort 🙂

  3. I love this. This is how we mostly raise our children. But what would you do with a young child, 4, who doesn’t really care what the explainations are? The child who only want to eat pb&j for dinner. Refuses to try anything else & then cries all night how hungry he is. The child who doesn’t want to go to bed, no matter how tired he is & keeps himself awake out of pure determination until 2am everyday & then up at 6am with no naps. The child who gets zombiefied from tv & cant hear anything else going on in the world when it is on & refuses to turn it off. He literally could watch from breakfast until he finally falls asleep. How does giving him the freedom to make decisions when they are clearly not healthy for him. Or how does that conversation go when the parent has to make the decision for the child with no room for discussion or negotiations. I’m having a hard time with these types of areas & cant figure out how to bridge the gap to help him not only see how I see things but to also get him to agree that my idea is a good idea & have him go along with it. This is the part of having autonomous children that no one talks about.

    • Hello!
      If I may, I just want to say that autonomy does not mean there is no structure. The child learns from his environment in many ways.
      If he wants to stay up late, it does not mean the parent should. Go to bed and tell him he can join you if he wants. He will eventually do so (especially if the lights are out) and fall asleep beside you. It will happen a few nights in a row and then he will know what to do.
      He wants unhealthy food for dinner, why have it in the house in the first place? Think a little ahead if I may say so and eliminate before hand anything that may become controversial.
      For example, you know he likes to climb on rocks, so do not take him to a place where the rocks are close to a cliff (!) but in a safe area where you know if he falls the hurt will be minimal.
      Also I think with time things have a way of smoothing out and as a child sees that the parent trusts him or her, he starts acting in a way that is safe and respectful for himself and others.
      I hope I have not been too bold in writing this.
      Thank you. Kenza. (single mother of an eight and half unschooled and oh goodness! autonomous child.)

    • Thank You! My wild two year old isn’t capable of some of these decision making examples. Because he’s two. And honestly, my twelve year old would have horrific teeth and be obese had I let him choose everything by himself.

  4. Love this! My husband and I are thinking about preparing for a family of our own, and I often wonder/worry about myself as a child and if they’ll end up like me as teenagers. The worst of my years was when I decided I was going to claim my own autonomy (I was about 15 – super fun for my parents) and made a lot of choices I wish I hadn’t because it was the first time I was exploring in my own space. And I felt ashamed about it because that exploration wasn’t really something my parents supported. They are great, loving people, but my sisters and I definitely had rules and strict boundaries.

    It looks like your children are young, but since you are giving them that space of their own to explore now, I would think that by the time they’re in their teen years they’ll already have so much more of a sense of responsibility than some of us with more controlling parents did. Not to say they won’t make ANY choices they regret, because we all do, but they’ll already know the consequences of certain actions and will know that their parents have their backs when they need it. I think this is beautiful. I’m new to WordPress but looking forward to reading more of your blog!

  5. Beautifully written. One feels it is from the heart.
    Many people are afraid or better yet too cautious to allow autonomy and yet, once the child feels he is respected and listened to, things generally flow gently. There can be some bumps on the way but with time things seem to get smoothed out. The parent needs to get rid of preconceived idea about what a child can and cannot do. I often just go back to my childhood and think how I would have liked things to be and how I felt.
    Thank you for this post.
    Kenza.

  6. Thank you for this. I have been reading your words for months and am slowly starting to envision a bigger picture and understand how to implement these ideas in my home. Coming from a home with much neglect these ideas sometimes scare me. I craved guidance, encouragement, affection, etc…giving my children autonomy sometimes feels like I am being Uncaring. I love what you said about Modeling. That makes everything click into place. The balance of respect and love; autonomy and being a cherished part of the family; influencing, not controlling. The more I read the more wisdom I gain. Thank you.

  7. Beautifully written and such great examples of what child autonomy really looks like. It seems so obvious and natural to me now, but I know before I had my daughter I had envisaged being a strict, no nonsense parent. It’s blogs like these that changed my mind and I’m grateful for it. Keep on posting and changing the world, one family at a time <3

  8. Brilliantly written article, I had to show my husband and say honey look we’re doing it right according to this lol. We Love it! ✨💗✨

  9. Pingback: No Adult Would Tolerate School | Happiness is here

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