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Autonomy: When and How Much Freedom to Allow Your Children

Parents frequently come up against the question, both with each other and their children, of "Do we allow our son/daughter to _____ or not?" This question comes to parents' minds more than they realize, and often they make a quick decision one way or the other. What they do not always realize is the thought process their brain went through in that split second to come to the decision. Looking at this thought process is the key to making the decisions that parents debate each other and their children over.

When children are infants these decisions are easy, as an infant needs a caretaker for everything from eating to dressing them in appropriate clothing. As they pass from this stage into the toddler stage parents decide how much freedom to allow their toddler, who may have recently learned to walk and are constantly wanting to explore their new world. At first parents will allow their toddler to walk by themselves in safe areas of the parents choosing, but stay right by their side. As the toddler learns new skills and information, such as crawling up stairs and that certain things just don't taste good and should not be placed in their mouth, they allow their toddler to walk unaccompanied a certain distance. As the young child grows in age and in their knowledge and skills, their judgment and self-control begin to take shape.

When your child makes good choices, and is mindful about the consequences of certain actions, it becomes time to allow them more freedom. For example, a child asks to be more involved when their parent cooks and wonders if he or she can stir the pot instead of just handing over items and dumping the noodles in. At that moment, between the child asking the question and the response, the parent has evaluated their child's past success and mishaps. They have recalled how long ago the latest episodes when the child decided to ignore the parent's instruction were and have weighed it against the times the child was successful. Parents also decide whether they have displayed good judgment and have an adequate understanding of the dangers of a hot stove in order to safely take the next step up in autonomy and stir the pot. It sounds like a lot for your brain to go through in a split second, but it does, and leaves the parents with an answer.

Through the years parents make these decisions based upon their child's previous master of knowledge, skills, good decision making and judgment. When parents cannot make that spit second decision, it is usually due to one of two things. The parent may not believe their child has shown sufficient mastery in these four areas, sometimes making poor decisions and at times having goof judgment, making the scales in the parent's head not fall one way or the other. When this occurs, parents should explain this to their child. Recall to them both the past successes and shortcomings, explaining why you do not feel comfortable giving them this freedom just yet. Parents should tell their child what they can do to work on earning this freedom. The other reason parents might struggle with a decision may not have anything to do with their child's previous success, but results from the parent's fear of "What if?" What if I let them stir and they make a mistake and burn themselves? What if I let my teen drive by him/herself and they get into an accident? These questions haunt parent's thoughts and sometimes take over the logical decision making process that allows children to build their skill base and grow in autonomy. When this happens it's important to first recognize the pattern.

Do you find that you are asking yourself if you are treating your teen like a young child, protecting them from "the outside world?" Is your child mastering the skills other children are at your son/daughter's age, or are they behind? Do you say "no" far more than you say "yes," helping your child with the same task or lecturing on the dangers of an activity? If so, get a second opinion. Ask your spouse, a close relative, or friend who has frequent contact with you and your child if you are being overly cautious. Remind yourself when faced with one of these decisions to go through the questions and come to a logical conclusion. Remember that as a parent you are teaching your children skills to one day be self-sufficient and successful. For this to happen, they need to try things on their own, even when there's a chance they may fail. When this happens, and it will, pull in the reins on their freedom, work with them on their mistake, and send them out again.

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