The Importance of Autonomy for Young People

The Importance of Autonomy for Young People

There comes a point in every young person’s life in which they start to crave the power to make their own decisions.  This can be an anxious time for parents and for those who work with young people… where is the line?  How certain can we be that if we place our trust in them, that they will do what they need to?  Be successful? Speak up for themselves?  Seek help?

Parents will often try to protect their children from more responsibility, and at school we often see this manifest in simple things like negotiating an extension or exemption from a teacher on the child’s behalf,  or interceding in a discipline issue. Although well-intentioned, this does not help your child grow into a confident individual, nor will it always earn their approval. They may even resent you for it.  They will probably lack the maturity and the vocabulary to identify this and tell you themselves though.

Seeking independence is a natural part of the process of growing up – and as such we need to support it.  We need to offer them the space and the opportunities to make their own decisions – but not forget that they may still need guidance as to what a good decision means.

This is something we can gradually start when we feel the young people are at an appropriate age.  Always start with small things – and by reinforcing that they can trust themselves.  This trust manifests later on when young people grapple with temptation – and listen to that inner voice that tells them something isn’t right for them.

We can model this process ourselves by thinking out loud when making our own choices.  Should I eat pancakes for dinner, or steak and vegetables?  What will make me feel better, not just now but also tomorrow?

We can also model this by owning our own small mistakes and failings. If we see these as learning opportunities and model this, they will too.

Remember the important role of chores and study in developing independence.  Agreed-upon chores around the home, undertaken at a time of the child’s discretion, teaches them organization and the important role of serving and living with others.  This reflects our responsibilities as living as a part of a broader community.  Establishing their own study routine as they approach their senior years of schooling also creates great autonomy – and motivation. True motivation only comes from our own choices.  If your child creates their own schedule, recognizing when study works best for them and how to work in their preferences and commitments, they have a plan they are more likely to stick to than one imposed upon them.  This is especially important to encourage boys to do – as boys generally have less executive function than girls, and therefore need more supported opportunities to organize themselves.  Packing their own lunch (or, failing to have lunch if it is not packed) is also a simple teaching tool.

Surprisingly, even gaming creates autonomy!  The decisions young people make in the game – either for themselves or a team all help them develop judgment and self-capacity.  The gaming environment is actually a rather low-risk space for thinking independently!

Taking a small step back – but offering other supports such as the chance to talk through with a sibling or trusted friend also can be a good step in developing independence.  Connect them with someone you feel comfortable with to talk the issue through – but reassure them the decision is theirs.  This gives them a greater sense of making their own decision.

Letting go is crucial for parents, teachers and coaches if we want to contribute the development of truly independent individuals.  A good mantra to keep in mind is: With them, not for them!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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