The Autonomy Principle is the natural law of sovereignty, meaning “supreme power.” As human beings, we are all created equal with the free will to make choices. This freedom is our highest power and it’s at the core of our very existence. Especially in democratic countries, we citizens are often willing to fight or die for this sovereign right. We place a high value on it. With this right, however, comes an associated and hefty price—personal responsibility for the outcome of our choices.
Choices bring consequences. For instance, if we spill our milk, we must clean it up. It doesn’t mean we are stupid or bad or that we should be punished for spilling the milk. It simply means we must take the time and energy required to clean up the mess we’ve made. If we continue to go around spilling milk on a frequent basis, it may begin to define us as being inefficient and without the ability to adapt. Since we’re likely to reject that characterization, we learn how to pay attention and be more careful when drinking milk. Our effective teacher, in this case, is the natural principle, not emotionally punitive consequences from a third party.
If we get to make choices, then everyone else gets to make them, too. That’s fair. If we don’t believe and support this, we’re hypocrites. We’re just entitled actors who pretend to live by principles when they work in our favor, while not extending this same right to everyone around us—others who may accuse us of being unjust and unreasonable. What makes us equal is that each of us has the right to make choices, not that we are all the same in other ways.
The Autonomy Principle is a natural and self-evident law. The only way we’re not autonomous (independent; self-governing) is if we give up our right to make choices or allow others to take away our free will. This principle is true for us as parents and equally true for our children.
Wait a minute. As we think about this, we may find ourselves becoming uncertain or ready to challenge the very thought of such a bold statement. It affects our current belief about the parent-child relationship. We have long-held viewpoints about our role, not unlike those people had for centuries about Aristotle’s theory that something bigger and heavier falls faster than something smaller and lighter. As parents, we’re accustomed to thinking we’re older and wiser and more experienced; therefore, we have the right to decide on every issue. Children are to be seen and not heard. Children are to listen and watch and learn . . . and obey.
Our children have just as much right to choice (their free will) as we do. But, how do we honor their right to choose while keeping them safe and, at the same time, clearly present to them our value system? When they’re very young, we can take this right of theirs away from them, and we do when we deem it necessary for their safety. However, if we routinely dishonor their right to choose, this may be quite damaging to their health and well-being. It’s a natural right, because it’s a built-in principle that’s necessary for their healthy and independent development and functioning. If we remove their right to choose, and they don’t develop the ability to make good choices, they may depend on someone else to choose for them throughout their lifetime or continue to make poor choices.
Without free choice, everything changes. Let’s consider more deeply the parent-child relationship. When we ask our children to give us a hug and they choose to do so, it feels good because they chose to comply. But, is there a change in our experience when, unprompted, our child voluntarily hugs us? The answer is likely, “Yes.” We give that experience a different meaning. After multiple experiences of prompting and modeling affection with our children, there is a shift in their pattern so that choosing to offer us affection is a sign of their love. The consequence has a stronger connection with us. The strengthening of this connection provides safety, security, and trust and can eventually lead to interdependency. That’s the way love and secure attachment works . . .by choice. On the other hand, we must use our common sense and intervene when our children are in danger. There are very clear times in their lives that natural consequences are simply unacceptable within our value system.
To live successfully by this principle of autonomy, we must challenge our pattern of thinking and that of those with whom we hope to have a close relationship and make shifts that reflect the true nature of the principle. The reason we extend free choice to people in our life (including our children) is because they are sovereign and have supreme power, just like us. It’s right and just, and this is the way we function best. To develop their highest power, our children must learn how to do things for themselves. If we can guide them to this end, we are successful parents. Our mantra, in this case, becomes: Help them do it by themselves.
A story about a lighthouse is useful in our discussion. It goes like this:
Near an outcropping of majestic seaside cliffs, a lighthouse stood tall and steadfast. Its light alerted ships of the rocky terrain ahead. It informed those who saw its light shining through the darkness of their current position and guided them to safety.
Certainly such a lighthouse would beam its radiant beacon assuredly and confidently from its very first day. Not this particular lighthouse. During the first days, the sun illuminated its environment of perilous cliffs and treacherous rocks. When confronted by the driving rain and winds, dense fog and haze of storms, especially during the darkness of nighttime danger, this lighthouse would invariably become frightened.
One day, a seagull perched on the rim of its highest peak and commented on the sense of fear and sadness displayed by the lighthouse. “I’m afraid of the storms and the rain, the wind and the fog,” the lighthouse confessed. “At night, I’m engulfed in darkness, and during the day, I’m surrounded by perilous cliffs and treacherous rocks.”
“But, you’re a lighthouse,” the seagull said. “Your strength can withstand the strongest storms. Your light beams through the darkness. You’re sturdy and steadfast and the rocks and cliffs pose no threat to you.”
“Yes, but I see the ships in the ocean tossing and turning in the churning waters of the stormy sea,” the lighthouse lamented. “I see the cliffs and rocks veiled in the storms and fog, masked in the darkness of night. I may not be in danger, but I fear for the safety of the ships. They face real hazards and death-defying danger. I just stand here beaming my light. I want to stop the storms. I want to clear the fog and move the rocks and cliffs. I want to illuminate the darkness as brightly as a sunny day, but I can’t even do that. I can’t offer enough light to provide clear visibility. I can only produce a narrow beam. I feel I’m not doing enough and I’m frustrated, because I can’t do more to help.”
The seagull thought for a moment. “You’re just a lighthouse. You can’t clear the weather or completely illuminate the darkness, and you certainly can’t move giant rocks or cliffs. Lighthouses don’t have these powers. You underestimate the power of your light, however. You stand in hazardous surroundings and in the midst of storms and darkness. Your beacon is a steadfast signal of hope and safety. Have you considered how ships see you? When your beacon cuts through the storm, it says, ‘Danger lies here. Navigate carefully.’ What would happen if you weren’t here?”
The lighthouse contemplated the seagull’s words and finally rejoiced in a better understanding of its function and limited abilities. It stood tall and resolute and fulfilled its appointed duty, without fear and without lamenting its limitations. ~Author unknown
As parents, we are our children’s lighthouse. Our role is to empower them with the ability to navigate themselves safely through the storms and confusion and temptations that could cause them to trip and fall. We do this through the steadfast strength of our interminable beacon, which represents their inspiration, encouragement and symbol of hope.
While we may readily accept the example of ourselves as a lighthouse for our children, we may still hesitate to make an aligning shift in our pattern of thinking and behaving. We have been taught to believe we must make choices for our children, even after they have reached adulthood. Truthfully, we must teach them to do most tasks for themselves, based upon choices they make. As we successfully make this change in our parenting methods, our fears and worry about encouraging the right of free choice will subside. We will experience genuine excitement in the acceptance of our parenting power and be able to focus on what we can do, rather than on what we cannot do. We will be able to stand strong and steadfast and calm, even in the midst of family trials and tribulations. What an incredibly potent way to empower our children with autonomy.
As long as we are “beaming” encouragement and hope and not attempting to usurp the responsibilities of our children, they will learn how our parenting methods can positively influence their choices now and in the future. Choice is central to living healthy, purposeful, and independent lives. If we embrace choice in our own lives and extend it freely to our children, they will acquire more experience with the outcomes of their choices within the safe laboratory of our family unit.
Let me know what your thoughts and experiences are regarding this principle of autonomy.
Until next time…Claim your power and expand your dreams!