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The development of a healthy autonomy entails a process. As parents, we can be right or wrong when it comes to educating.
Since the day we were born, we need the help of others to get along; however, as far as we grow we realize that we don’t like to depend on others. Is it the same to be individualistic as to be autonomous?
Nowadays, this is well accepted, but it becomes a big problem when the individual wants to be the centre around which everything revolves, according to his own interests. His motto is “I do what I want, irrespective of others.”
Autonomy, on the contrary, is the capacity that someone has to set rules of conduct for oneself and for one’s relationships with others within certain limits (family, law, work, etc.). Autonomy helps us to work, to collaborate with others, and also to solve the problems we find in our everyday life. It does not suddenly appears, but it takes a process.
For example, just as we eat different food according to our age, in quality and quantity, our capacity to be autonomous can vary in a positive or in a negative way.
Some flavours seem very strong when we are kids, but not now, being adults. We mature and learn to eat healthier as we grow. It is the same with autonomy, babies and young children depend greatly on their parents, but as they grow, they learn to collaborate with others and to solve difficult situations by themselves.
It is easy to say that, but hard to put into practice for us parents, who have to cast off and let them make their mistakes. We can easily say that we all learn from mistakes, but in fact we do the contrary, we think: “later, they will have all the time for that”, because we can’t stand to see these little ones, we love so much, hurt themselves when they fall.
“It’s not a big deal, we tell them while we remove the sand from their bruised little knees. “Stupid stone, stupid stone!” - our “tiddler” says pointing to it, and we confirm it: “yes, stupid stone”.
This way the days, the months and the years... the parents, the teachers and the spouses pass by. We always blame someone else. Autonomy is not the same as individualism.
Developing a healthy autonomy takes a process. As parents, we can be right or make mistakes when it comes to educate. Some of the most common mistakes are:
- Demand more (or less) than what a particular age requires:
The Little Prince says that “all adults were once children. But few remember it”. We all have needed, and still need to learn (continually). We wish our children to be superheroes of flesh and blood, even though we know that such don’t exist. It is not by demanding them more that youngsters will be more autonomous. Quantity is not always a synonym for quality.
- Diminish the importance of parents/children relationships:
If theory is important, practice is even more. Theory helps us to understand knowledge, relationship open doors to put into practice. There is not any information, website, or online application sophisticated enough to substitute that sense of safety transmitted by parents to children, through listening to or being with them.
Good parents are well informed and updated, excellent parents put into practice what they learn and teach through their own example. They give their child a good learning environment where it is not a big deal to make mistakes, and where you have the possibility to make new starts.
- Allow (everything) without setting limits:
“The more, the better” is a dangerous saying if we want to be balanced.”Use” or “quantity”, what is more important? Quantity is external, use is internal. Let us find principles that will help us to use or manage knowledge, time, relationships or money correctly.
There are people who are overloaded by a big amount of work and still don’t realize that the problem is not the quantity but how they use or manage work. As adults we must learn to set limits in our personal or working relationships if we want to set an example to our children about how to develop a healthy autonomy.
If the only thing they see and hear is that our job does not allow us to be with them, they will believe that autonomy is not useful and it is not an answer to an external abuse.
A HEALTHY AUTONOMY
What can we do about it? How can we promote a healthy autonomy?
- Show appreciation to one another:
The German philosopher William James said that: “in every person, from the crib until the tomb, there is a deep yearning to be appreciated”. The home is the obvious place where we should “reload our batteries” after a hard working or schooling day. Unfortunately, it is not the case for many.
Family is very important. Most of our problems as adults come from circumstances or situations badly dealt in our childhood. Lets first conquer the heart of our children in order to win their head later on. Lets believe in them before they reach significant achievements. Lets give them hope.
I was fascinated by the following anecdote that J. C. Maxwell tells in his book Relationships 101: “an experiment with laboratory mice measured their motivation to live under different circumstances.
Scientists put a mouse in a water jug in a completely dark place, and measured the time the animal persevered swimming before abandoning and drowning. They found out that the rat faught little more than three minutes.
Then, they put another rat in the same jug, but this time instead of placing it in total darkness, they allowed a ray of light to shine on it. In these circumstances the mouse carried on swimming for 36 hours. That is seven hundred times more than the rat in total darkness. Because the mouse could see, it maintained its hope”.
I wonder if, in the midst of difficulties, do we transmit light to our children, or do they struggle to survive in a completely dark environment?
- Treat our children as active moral agents:
The phrase “active moral agent” could sound pedantic or weird. In fact, what I mean is that we make them aware that, for good or bad, they are constantly making decisions about what they do or don’t do.
From that perspective, as parents, we must talk to them with the language of duty and responsibility, and the best way to do it is showing the example, isn’t it?
Lets make them realize that they are our first responsibility, and demonstrate it with facts. Lets break the vicious circle of all those immediate needs that go against the time we should dedicate to our children.
In our social and working system, if we don’t plan strategically our life to spend time with our family we will fail to do that. We will blame our jobs and social obligations, even our religious “services” if we are Christians. Basically, what we are teaching them is: I am not in control of my life, I am prisoner of my circumstances, the only thing I can do is to remain passive and wait to see my desire fulfilled, but I cannot decide by myself.
The most important problem a family can undergo is not to lose the house, a job or a social position... not even the death of a loved one. The most important problem a family can undergo is the division (in the lifetime) of the family unit. Lets make that our priority.
- Share the same values:
What principles do we transmit? Don’t think that the government, the university or the parenting schools have the responsibility to do that. Lets cast aside the superficial concept of “factory of individuals” where it seems that we must be similar to get the same result.
We can write, listen and read about the 10 keys for this or that, without forgetting that each one is the principle key in his own life. How the essence of what I am affects those around me? What is my contribution? Do I trust myself and others?
- Invest in marriage:
When the spouses respect and love each other, their children learn a lot about the importance of commitment in the midst of differences and difficulties in life.
To sum it up, autonomy is good, but it is not given overnight through a sudden “divine inspiration”. Sometimes, training children to be autonomous will demand to parents not only to learn how to “cast off”, but also to accompany them and listen to them, dedicating the time they deserve.
I have in mind the image of a child learning how to ride a bicycle. It requires effort, along with security measures that will disappear according to the growing ability.
In the beginning, the child rides a tricycle, then a bicycle with two additional little wheels to give balance. Eventually, these wheels are removed and the parent runs beside the child, telling him that he is doing a good job. That way, the day comes when everyone can ride their own bicycle autonomously, being aware of all the surroundings.
Francisco Sánchez is a Secondary School teacher in Spain.