Excerpt: How to give your kids the gift of autonomy

little girl walking by herself in the woods

By Michaeleen Doucleff

After years of research and travel, I finally started to see what I couldn’t see before. Ironically, the key to protecting kids from anxiety and stress was actually right under our noses. It’s something our culture values and greatly desires, but something we struggle to actually give our kids. 

I’m talking about autonomy. That is, the right to make your own decisions and guide your own life, or at least feel like you have those powers.

Here in Western culture, we want our kids to be self-sufficient and independent. But we aren’t very good at giving kids autonomy. We think we are. We try. But at the end of the day, many kids have little control of their daily lives. We set them up with strict daily schedules and routines, and ensure that an adult supervises every moment throughout the day. In the end, we somehow both macromanage and micromanage their lives. In the process, we generate a huge amount of stress in our relationship with our children—and inside our children.

Autonomy has tremendous benefits for kids of all ages. Oodles of studies have linked autonomy to a slew of desired traits, including confidence, self-sufficiency, long-term motivation, and better executive function. As a child gets older, autonomy is connected to better performance in school, increased chance of career success, and decreased risk of drug and alcohol abuse. 

Perhaps most importantly: autonomy provides the antidote to stress and anxiety. When you feel like you have influence over your immediate situation and the direction of your life, stress goes down, the brain relaxes, and life gets easier.

“The biggest gift parents can give their children is the opportunity to make their own decisions,” psychologist Holly Schiffrin says. “Parents who ‘help’ their children too much stress themselves out and leave their kids ill-prepared to be adults.”

In many hunter-gatherers communities, parents are masters at giving kids autonomy. Children are allowed to decide their own action, moment to moment, and set their own agendas. Parents don’t constantly offer a stream of instructions, commands, or lectures. Parents don’t feel this ubiquitous urgency to “occupy” a child’s time or “keep them busy.” Instead, they feel confident that the child can—and will—figure all that out for themselves. Why interfere?

As a result, children in these communities grow up with a surplus of confidence and self-sufficiency. In Tanzania, Hadzabe families have noticed this effect on children. “Because we give children so much freedom and because they participate in all activities from an early age, our children are independent much earlier than in most societies,” a group of elders explained in the book Hadzabe: By the Light of a Million Fires.

On the flipside, when kids don’t have enough autonomy, they often feel powerless over their lives. That feeling causes stress, and over time, that chronic stress can turn into anxiety and depression. Lack of autonomy is likely a key reason for the high prevalence of anxiety and depression among American children and teenagers, many psychologists and neuropsychologists have found. 

So how do we give our children more autonomy, while still keeping them safe? There are two main ways:

  1. Decrease your commands and other verbal input to your child (e.g., questions, requests, choices).
  2. Empower your child by training them to handle obstacles and dangers, which in turn allows you to reduce your commands.

Let’s start with number one.

Go for three commands an hour. In one study with BaYaka hunter-gatherers in the Congo Basin, a psychologist counted how many commands adults gave children each hour, including requests for help, such as “Hold the water cup” or “Go wash your hands.” 

Guess how many commands, on average, parents issued each hour? Three. That means the parents basically stay silent for more than fifty-seven minutes of every hour. In contrast, when I ran this experiment on myself, I was clocking in more than 60 commands per hour. Wowza!

Turns out, it’s quite easy to reduce your commands. To try it, grab your phone and set the timer for twenty minutes. During this time, restrict yourself to one verbal command to your child. Resist the urge to tell the child anything: what to do, eat, say, or how to act. This includes asking questions about what the child wants or what they need. If you absolutely have to change their behavior, do it nonverbally; use actions or facial expressions. Try with all your heart to let the child be, even if they break “rules” or do something you can’t stand. (Remember, it’s only twenty minutes.)

If the child ends up in what looks like an unsafe situation, wait just a beat and see if the child can help themselves before you intervene. If not, go over and remove the physical danger or move the child.

After the twenty minutes, assess how you and your child feel. Do you feel more relaxed and calm? Does your child feel less stressed? Do you have less conflict?

Try this exercise with any activity that brings stress and conflict in the home (e.g., getting ready for school, getting ready for bed). In the end, the child might not look or behave exactly how you wish, but the psychological benefits for the family will far outweigh these cosmetic issues. Once you get comfortable with twenty minutes, try bumping up the time to forty minutes, then an hour. After a month or so, see if you notice a difference in your child’s behavior and their relationship with you. Do they have more confidence? Do you experience less conflict?

Find autonomy zones. Many American families live around busy roads, dangerous intersections, and stranger-filled neighborhoods. That said, we can still find places where children can have (almost) full autonomy and parents can relax (while practicing the new rule of “three commands per hour”). 

In each autonomy zone, you can train the child to handle or avoid any dangers that exist in the environment so you don’t have to constantly give the child instructions. 

At the beginning, walk around near the child as they explore the environment. Stand behind them and keep an eye out for any dangers—steep drop-offs, pools of water, sharp objects.

Catalog these dangers in your mind. 

Step back. Sit down somewhere, pull out a book (or work), and relax. Let the child explore autonomously. Count your commands and go for three per hour.

Form an invisible safety net. If the child goes near one of the dangers, start watching more closely. The more time they spend near the danger, the closer you watch. Resist the urge to run over to the child or scream a warning. Wait and watch. If the child seems interested in the danger, calmly walk over and begin to train them about that danger (e.g., for a sharp object, say, “Sharp. Ow. That would hurt,” gently and calmly). If the child already knows about the danger, remind them of the consequences (e.g., for a sharp object, say calmly, “That would cut you. Ow, that would hurt if you step on it”). If the child still doesn’t understand, gently take the child’s hand and lead them away from the danger. Try the lesson another day.

Aim for kids to spend at least three hours each week in an autonomy zone and work your way up to a few hours each day, using time after school and on the weekends.

What makes a good autonomy zone? For toddlers and smaller children, look for places with wide-open spaces, so you can see the little ones easily from a far distance and you don’t have to follow them around. Some great places include parks with wide-open spaces, playgrounds, beaches, community gardens, grassy fields, schoolyards, dog parks, your house and yard (or porch in the city).

For older children, community pools, community centers, and playgrounds make great autonomy zones. Work up toward dropping kids off at these places (and the ones above) and picking them up later. Teach children to help look after themselves and after younger siblings. Tell them to watch out for the little ones and make sure they stay safe.

Michaeleen Doucleff is the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent, from which this excerpt is adapted.

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