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Give Your Kids Autonomy: What It Means and How To Do It

Recently, several people sent me this article from Psychology Today written by Peter Gray. “Have you seen this?” they asked, thinking it was new and important information. 

The article was actually written in 2010, so the information and research are not new. But a decade later, Gray’s perspective is more important than ever. In the article, Gray attributes the rise in anxiety and depression in our youth to an overemphasis on structured, achievement-based education and a significant decrease in free play. 

Play is the arena where children practice autonomy, where they learn to self-govern, take reasonable risks, collaborate, and develop their values. It’s where they practice our parenting lessons—on their own. 

What happens when free play—and thus autonomy– is minimized? We produce a generation of children who lack opportunities to problem-solve, imagine, mess up, make up, and discover their outer and inner worlds. And these children grow into young adults who struggle. Every measure of their mental health is moving in the wrong direction. 

Gray talks about free play, but he and I are addressing something broader: free LEARNING. Of course, I’m not suggesting freedom from rules, boundaries, responsibilities. It’s not all or nothing. There are times when we must step in and enforce the rules. 

What I advocate is freedom from our constant adult commentary, judgement, direction and chatter. Kids, like adults, learn from experience. Cause and effect, we’d all agree, is a valuable concept to grasp. We have to let the cycle of cause AND effect play out.

I speak routinely about the relationship between restricting a child’s autonomy and anxiety in children

“I must step in because this is either too hard, too dangerous, or too important for you to mess with on your own.

The more we step in to help, control, oversee, warn, the more we deliver–often inadvertently–that persistent marketing slogan of anxiety, “You can’t handle this!” 

Combine this well-meaning supervision with fear-based messages —“I have to step in because something might go wrong if I don’t”— and the message becomes a dose of incompetence AND fear. 

How does this stressed-out, anxious, hopeless sundae of emotional patterns feed anxiety and depression? The dark cherry on top is that this message emphasizes the need for achievement and the avoidance of making mistakes.  

Boosts in autonomy (for all ages) live in the creative spaces, free of adult-directed time clocks, drills, lining up, directions. At the very least, kids need a respite from adult opinions and external expectations. 

Looking at the bigger picture, increased autonomy equips your children with the ability to hang in there, assess risk, make mistakes, figure it out, feel big feelings, try again and still be okay. 

That’s anxiety and depression prevention right there. 

Love them through the learning…but look for more opportunities to step back and be quiet. 

5 Immediate Ways to Support Autonomy in Your Kids

1. Let them do their own homework.
If they need help, they can certainly ask, but the routine of sitting with your child each night, initiating, monitoring and then CORRECTING the homework before it goes back to school? Nope. Teachers consistently back me up on this in school meetings. And, please! Who wants to do homework again? If you love it that much, take a class yourself.

2. Let your kids play without direction as early as possible.

You are not a bad parent if you tell your children to entertain themselves (free of screens, optimally.)  Think for a moment about the games you made up as a kid. No adults, no coaches, no uniforms. That’s free play and free learning. 

3. Make room for unscheduled time in your children’s schedule.

Parents say to me, “She just wants to do everything! It’s not us, it her!” That might be true (although what you model is key here), so your job is to model valuing free time and create room for it. Show them what that looks like. They need it. You need it. Sixteen-year-olds are burning out on LIFE. I see it all the time. Childhood shouldn’t be so darn exhausting. 

4. Teach kids to be in charge of developmentally appropriate areas of their life.

Laundry? Picking out clothes? Waking up in the morning? Here’s some great grist for the “cause and effect” mill. No clean pants? Late for school? Forgot your cleats? Learning, learning, learning.

5. Stop the constant reminding.

There are important things that certainly require a reminder (it’s not all or nothing, I’ll say again) but is it a habit? Do you nag? Do you defend your nagging with the argument that they won’t do anything if you don’t nag? Then decrease nagging and increase autonomy. 

Allow your children to experience some distress as they develop autonomy. Support them, hug them, listen to them, but don’t jump in. 

And finally, there are few things as impactful on a child’s autonomy than unchecked perfectionism in a parent. What do I mean by that? Stay tuned for my next article!