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Building Autonomy: Kids Are More Capable Than We Think

When sickness hits, this mom gets a big surprise

Published on: July 10, 2019

kids folding laundry doing chores

Last March, during my children’s two-week spring break, all of our family vacation plans were spoiled when influenza hit our household. Both my husband and I found ourselves flattened by illness, while, miraculously (or, actually, thanks to their vital immune systems and annual flu vaccinations), our children remained well.

For four full days, we parents lay in bed, feverish and aching and unable to take care of any of our typical parenting tasks, and the kids (who are 9 and 12) fended for themselves. They made meals (and ate them sitting like two mini grown-ups at our kitchen table). They fed and walked our dog, and they managed laundry and our weekly trash pickup. They even did their spring break homework without reminders. The sick days were long, but the kids navigated that well, too, playing with Legos, listening to audiobooks, drawing and (of course) playing Minecraft.

At one point, my husband and I joked that they were “Lord of the Flying it,” while we napped off our fevers in the other room. But internally, I felt some real guilt over my flu-induced benign neglect. Mid-break, the weather suddenly turned gorgeous, and I thought maybe I could conjure up just enough energy to drive the kids to the beach, where they could at least run and get some fresh air. (I didn’t manage that.) Or maybe I could just limp through a trip to the library? Underneath all of these best-laid plans was an actual concern that my flu-necessitated domestic break equated to poor parenting.

And then I came to my senses.

Kids need autonomy. I know this as a mom, and I know this as an educator. I’ve been a teacher for nearly 20 years, first as a professor at both small liberal arts colleges and big public universities, and for the last six years as a high school teacher. Among the many lessons I’ve learned as a teacher is that kids who grow up to become thriving young adults are those who are intrinsically motivated, creatively empowered and confidently independent.

As the adults in their lives, we support kids to develop all of these traits by giving them room to think, to try, to be and to fail. Where I teach, we call this “freedom within structure.” What my students prove to me, again and again, is that when a child identifies his/her/their own interest and pursues exploring it meaningfully and with supported self-direction, the learning gained is deep and authentic, and the learner is motivated to keep learning.

Kids who grow up to become thriving young adults are those who are intrinsically motivated, creatively empowered and confidently independent.

As a mom, I also know that the need for autonomy extends beyond the classroom.

An article published last March in The New York Times titled “How Parents Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood” makes this point. Rooted in the recent college-admissions scandals, this article argues that “snowplow” parents — those who use their own means and privilege to clear their children’s paths of all obstacles, to avert all possible failures and to orchestrate all of their kids’ decision-making — are doing their children a great disservice. The article quotes Laura Hamilton, author of “Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College and Beyond,” as saying, “There’s a constant monitoring of where their kid is and what they are doing, all with the intent of preventing something from happening and becoming a barrier to the child’s success.” While wanting one’s child to succeed is understandable, what we know to be true is that real success in adulthood is complex and driven more by internal confidence, resourcefulness, resilience and empathy than by any external markers or rewards.

If our goal as parents and teachers is educating kids to become capable, self-aware young adults, who — out of that self-awareness and capability — are also able to demonstrate compassion for others, marshal coping skills (for the inevitable setbacks and even failures of adulthood) and develop the communication abilities that will enable them to ask for help when they need it (and to speak up when they don’t need help, too), then gifting kids with a real balance of freedom and structure makes sense.

This brings me to something else I’ve learned as a teacher, though. When I ask my students’ parents to identify their most deeply held wish for their children, they actually don’t say “success,” but instead — and universally — they respond with “happiness.” The more we talk, the clearer it becomes that while “happiness” does infer resilience and confidence and autonomy, it also means joy. Parents want their kids to hang onto the most essential, shining and all too easily squashed sparkle of childhood. What’s behind that sparkle? Innate curiosity. The ability to feel wonder. The spark of inspiration and the drive and fearlessness required to risk creatively pursuing it.

So how do we as adults encourage and nurture this vision for our kids as both capable and happy adults? Again, I believe we start by giving them room to find their own way. We let them self-advocate. We let them experiment. We give them space to leap, to fall down, and then to pick themselves up again. Rather than “snowplowing” them, our job as the adults in kids’ lives is to help them find their boots and mittens and then to send them out to play in the deep stuff.

On the final morning of my flu last spring, I asked my daughter if she’d heat some water for tea; she did and then she filled the cup and brought it to me where I was sitting up in bed. She remembered honey — an extra kindness for which I thanked her. “No problem, Mom,” she said. “I feel like I’m the nurse and you’re the patient.”

“It’s a good game, huh?” I replied, and then I laughed/coughed at my own misery as the patient.

She smiled. “It is! And I’m getting better at it!”

I was relieved. Of course she’d been thinking of the extra responsibilities I’d asked her to take on while I was sick as a new kind of game. She got what I had temporarily forgotten. Learning, I reflected as I sipped my tea — at least when it’s done right — should make the learner feel empowered, and (of course) it should also be fun.

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