May 27, 2023

Paradox in Autonomy

There is paradox in autonomy. On the one hand, our children need to develop autonomy if they are to learn how to make good and adaptive decisions, by and for themselves. The paradox, however, is that this requires parents to extend to them the freedom to choose. Ouch! That seems to complicate our life and seems contrary to our sanity―especially when our children are first claiming their autonomy around the age of two or three. You know…the terrible twos and threes! This is when you hear, “I do it…No, mine!” Some of our kids have more of this drive than others, of course. At times, it seems to be so much easier to take away their choice and “force” them to comply. We do live in a time that seems to demand that we have the attitude of, “Let’s get it done and move on…I have tons more to do to make it through the day.”

As tempting as this is (in real time), the only time we should remove their choice is when it places them in danger. Even though extending choice to our children (especially when they are young) is necessary for them to develop healthy autonomy, their choices many times seem “nuts” and don’t bring about their or our desired consequence. This is the inconvenient and messy truth about learning or acquiring self-regulation―autonomy. It’s a process and, therefore, doesn’t happen immediately, with one step. It’s a ladder with many steps. Each step is necessary for making it to the top. As parents, we get to place the ladder in a stable and useful place. Our children have to do the climbing for themselves.

Natural and logical consequences are our most effective and efficient teachers. Therefore, our children need to make choices and relate them to the consequences of their choices. Some of our children seem to be “one trial learners…and some take many trials to learn. We need to have the patience to allow them to have enough repetitions to learn which choices are connected to the outcomes they want and need. There are natural and built-in reinforcers (things that strengthen), but we can also shape or condition adaptive choices, if we are observant and available.

When we’ve formed a healthy and secure bonding-attachment with our children, autonomy is arguably the next important principle for the power parent to tackle with their child’s development. This starts early and continues throughout childhood and adolescence, but the prime window for the heavy lifting is during the twos and threes―typically.



  • Autonomy = Sovereignty = Supreme Power.
  • Our supreme power is our freedom to choose.
  • Since each of us has this unalienable right of choice, so do our children.
  • We parents are responsible for helping our children make adaptive choices.
  • We create a safe laboratory and help prepare good personal scientists.
  • Ultimately, we parents are like a lighthouse; we light the way for our children.
  • We must remain steadfast, strong and unwavering in the midst of chaos and cast our beam.
  • This takes patience, but our child’s self-reliance is worth it.
  • All life forms and humanity are governed by natural laws/principles, even though we have the freedom to choose to ignore them.
  • The autonomy principle is a necessary, but not sufficient principle for the power parent. The mutuality principle is its compliment.


Ten Things You Can Do to Encourage Your Children’s Autonomy

  1. Teach your children to soothe themselves      by feeding, hugging, caressing, singing and then putting them in their bed      while patting their back and speaking to them with a loving and calming      voice for about one minute. Walk out of the room. If they are crying,      return after 10 minutes and lay them on their tummy and pat their back―do      not pick them up. Walk out of the room. Continue this sequence until they      have fallen asleep.
  2. Encourage self-exploration and      always be nearby as their “secure base.”
  3. Always show them how to do      tasks that are appropriate to their age, while keeping them safe.      Encourage them to do these tasks by themselves, with ample guidance as      needed, reinforcement and praise. Repetition is important for learning new      skills.
  4. Encourage choice. For our      younger children, try to provide two to three choices that have been      pre-screened for success. That way, they are encouraged to make choices      for themselves, but the consequences will usually be pretty positive.
  5. When our children make choices      that have negative outcomes, help them see that other options are more      likely to produce better outcomes for them. Being emotionally punitive or      trying to make them feel badly about themselves is always      counterproductive to promoting autonomy.
  6. When our children make messes,      help them to clean the mess as much as they are able by themselves. Talk      to them and treat them the same way that you would like others to talk to      and to treat you when you have made a mess.
  7. After we’ve shown our children      how to do something, allow them to struggle some with the task, while      being supportive and encouraging. Some frustration is a necessary part of      learning. When we master a task, we feel empowered, confident and      self-reliant.
  8. As our children become older      and more developed, we tell them that they have certain rights to choose      and we are interested to know how they are thinking and feeling about      their world and our family. Of course we emphasize the need for them to be      respectful of us, just like we are respectful of them.
  9. Keep your children safe from      harmful natural consequences, but always allow them to learn from safe      natural and logical consequences. They can be our best teacher.
  10. Model autonomy by claiming your      supreme power of choice and celebrate this right to choose, while always      being personally responsible for your choices, without blame of self or      others.

I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences about autonomy.

“Claim your power and expand your dreams!”~Dr. B

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