Positive Discipline : The importance of autonomy for children

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who are housebound or located in rural locations where therapy is difficult to find. Online Therapy details : Here

As children grow older, they like to explore and push boundaries. What they are looking for is a sense of autonomy and self-confidence, an important cog in the wheel of development. The way parents handle this is crucial for the child’s development.When children are not allowed to explore in a child proof home or are punished and smacked by parents for what is in reality,  age appropriate behavior, they develop a sense of shame and doubt.

It is important to note that we are talking here about giving our children a “sense” of autonomy, not autonomy itself. Erik Erikson, a well-known psychologist,  believed that is essential that parents give their children a chance to seek for this “sense” and make it stronger than the feelings of shame and doubt. Then and only then, will children have the confidence to later pursue and shape their own ideas and plans. Erikson advised building trust in the first year and fostering a sense of autonomy in the second and third. Positive discipline is not about punishment. It is about teaching and understanding developmental appropriateness. Parents often believe that young children are being defiant or intentionally misbehaving or even worse, trying to plot against their parents when really they are being overwhelmed by their own developmental needs in the search for exploration. Understanding this and reacting to it appropriately usually means that abstract concepts such as “no” and smacking are deemed as useless and inappropriate.

What is Autonomy ?

Having a sense of autonomy does not mean that a child gets to do what he likes and runs the home, making decisions on behalf of the parents. It is not permissiveness. A sense of autonomy is that a child is able to explore freely within safe boundaries set by the parents. Children are often burdened with too many incorrect choices and are very often placed in a position of responsibility by parents asking opinions on things that should be adult responsibilities, often creating demanding, anxious children. Subjects such as the choice of preschool or whether the parents are allowed to go out should not be placed on a child’s shoulders. Autonomy is best promoted in a safe, learning environment free of danger. This calls for a child proof home that allows children to explore, to test what they can do and develop such activities as holding on and letting go. The old saying goes well with this..”if you don’t want it broken, put it out of reach”. This is vitally important as children who are too confined too much will miss the opportunity to develop a sense of autonomy. I have seen parents who have restricted their child to a playpen or rocker as soon as they start to move around.  The side effect of this lack of intellectual stimulation could be a hampering of brain and muscle development, so essential in the first three years. The promotion of autonomy helps to develop the life skills needed when parents are no longer around. This is, of course, highly challenging for parents who could lack the very things, time and patience, that is a key ingredient of positive discipline. This is something that has to be given in ample amounts and are a prerequisite, along with a child-proof home. Without these the child will develop a false sense of the world and his ability to live in it.

Promoting Healthy Autonomy.

When a child has a healthy sense of autonomy, he respects the boundaries set by the parents. He knows he is free to explore the safe world set up for him and will develop the sense of making healthy choices. We as parents, can promote this by providing a framework through our attitudes and actions. This means:

Be kind but firm. Always follow through by doing what you say you will do. Another factor here is respect. Even young children should be given the opportunity to finish an activity before moving onto another.

Teach your child by doing. This means less talk, fewer lectures and more action. For example, most toddlers like to hit either the parents, other children or pets. We often make the mistake of telling them not to hit or hitting them back. This behavior is often just exploration. Modeling appropriate behavior would mean taking the child’s hand and saying and doing repeatedly “touch nicely”. 

Show your children what to do and model appropriate behavior. Avoid telling them what they cant do.

Encourage your child to think. Involve him by asking “how” and what” questions.  

Offer limited choices (all of which are acceptable) and avoid open-ended choices that promote “no” such as “do you want to go to bed?” Ask instead “what do we do before we go to bed?”

Use ample distraction and redirection. This is one of the key tools of positive discipline. Teaching a child what they can do instead of telling them what they can’t. Children will explore and many are taken away from the desired inappropriate object and given no alternative apart from confinement, leading to frustration, doubt and shame. Effective distraction means giving the child an appropriate alternative activity which is best done with the parent involved. This will need to be repeated and this is where time and patience come in. Avoid spanking, slapping or harsh words.

Avoid power struggles. A hug and a little time-out mean more than shouting matches involving “yes” and “no”.

Recognise the difference between wants and needs. Needs should be responded to, wants give an opportunity to teach.

Provide a safe environment for exploration and remove heavy and dangerous objects. Provide careful and loving supervision that teaches skills.

Above all..Focus on connection, love and relationship.

  8 comments for “Positive Discipline : The importance of autonomy for children

  1. October 15, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    What a wealth of information for new parents! Your points are of the utmost importance for helping a child (and parents) through the first formative years.
    When I cared periodically for my stepson, he was already 3 years old and had been the victim of permissive parenting and was, as they say, “spoiled”. During his stays with me, I managed to reason with him and gained his trust over the 8 years we spent together, so that there was actually a distinct change in his personality and personal habits. This became very apparent when he entered school, and his mother had to come to care for him for a couple of weeks while I was out of town for work. When I returned, I had a call from the school, asking if there had been any changes at home, since my stepson had displayed completely different behavior and was showing up for class all disheveled, disorganized and impolite.
    My experience with my stepson was after the 3-year period you mentioned, and I could only work to repair the impossible situation that had been created earlier. It was challenging and required a lot of understanding and patience.
    Thanks for outlining the intelligent parenting method! 🙂

    • October 15, 2012 at 6:02 pm

      Hi Gloria…thanks for the comment. Your story highlights how vitally important the first three years are in the development of a child.

  2. October 22, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Dear Dr. Jenner,

    It is so important to support the autonomy of children when they are young, particularly. It makes staying in relationship to our children so much easier in the long run! Thank you for your efforts to promote attachment-based parenting.

    I wanted to share with you an incredibly important project for children and mothers.
    Would you please “like” our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/protectchildrenfromviolence?ref=hl
    We are trying to produce a documentary to help raise awareness on the negative effects of spanking. Our website is http://stopspanking.org
    Thank you!
    Robbyn Peters Bennett

  3. swapna
    November 23, 2016 at 4:54 am

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