In the 1960s, ‘parenting’ gained traction as a distinct concept rather than just a way to describe our progenitors. At that time various ‘styles’ of parenting were theorised including: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. Though in the 80s we had ‘neglectful’ added to that list, it’s not until fairly recently that a fifth option has begun to gain traction: autonomy. For many years, authoritarian parenting – not too tough, not too soft, but just right -was  seen as the gold standard in the quest to become the perfect parent (and in truth, it still largely is within most mainstream parenting approaches).  

Autonomy, as opposed to these other approaches, centres on a child’s right to have control over their own body and mind based on the simple precept that they are a human being of equal worth to any other human being on the planet. A family who believes in autonomy will generally believe that children, like adults, have a right to liberty and opinions which extends exactly as far as the moment when another person’s liberty could be infringed. 

An adult who commits to allowing their children to develop autonomy in their lives is not, as per the earlier definition of permissiveness, letting a child do whatever they want whenever they want. Rather, parenting for autonomy is about allowing children to feel comfortable in themselves , to have the space necessary to experience their own feelings and to know that they have the ultimate authority to decide what is right for them. Rather than crafting their child in an image of what the parent believes a child should be, the child is given the freedom to explore their own thoughts and ambitions so that they can develop into the person that they feel they’re meant to be.

Accepting children for who they are and offering unconditional love, providing an environment that allows children to gain competency and providing clear and rational guidelines for the rules or expectations that children must adhere to are all key components of a household aimed at developing autonomy.  Encouraging autonomy is not just about removing parental judgement and control, but about ensuring that the controls that are in place are rational, equitable and understood by all.

A child with a strong sense of autonomy will know that they have the right to make many decisions on their own: choosing their own clothes, choosing how to spend their free time, choosing whether or not to allow another person to kiss or hug them or not being coerced into eating ‘one more bite’ when they’re already full. A parent who is comfortable with their child’s autonomy will trust that their child will develop without force, will consider things from their child’s perspective and will stand back rather than jumping in to help – even if it would save time to just put the darn jacket on for them.

Despite how elegantly rational this style of parenting sounds, it is frequently derided in both the popular press and in the vast majority of mainstream parenting books and methods, being frequently linked to the concept of ‘permissiveness’, whereby children are basically given no boundaries and expectations are not set.  Despite its lack of popular traction, an autonomous child will find contentment and fulfillment through the pursuit of their own interests. 

The link between adults’ sense of autonomy and their overall life satisfaction is indisputable.  Studies have repeatedly shown that adults who have a strong sense of autonomy at work have higher job satisfaction, are less likely to change jobs and are more likely to attempt to solve problems within their organisations.  And if we are willing to accept that childhood is the ‘work’ of the child, then the happiness of a child at work will also depend on their levels of autonomy.

20% time, also sometimes referred to as ‘passion projects’,  is a system whereby employers allocate a percentage of time every week for employees to pursue their own interests. Even though we think it was the mighty Google who invented the concept of granting workers autonomy in their careers, it actually dates back to the 1940s when manufacturing giant 3M granted their employees this same autonomy in an effort to boost innovation and dynamism in the company.

Employers who provide staff with time to pursue their passion projects report increases in innovation, greater levels of employee fulfilment, higher productivity during the rest of the week and an overall culture of satisfaction which is sometimes even described as happiness at work.  Interestingly, it has even been shown that employees don’t even necessarily need to take the full amount of time allocated for such pursuits – simply knowing that they could take the time to follow their heart makes them happier and more productive at work.

Imagine a child that is able to pursue their own interests, feels that they are responsible for their own decision-making and takes comfort in knowing that they are valued and respected regardless of the outcomes of their explorations.  This is a child who will not be afraid to take risks. This will be a child who knows that things not turning out the way they were planned is not a reason to throw in the towel.  This will be a child that will be willing to invest their energy into solving problems because they will know that eventually they’ll come up with a solution that satisfies their own demanding expectations for themselves.

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

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