When my son was a sophomore in high school, he got an 18 out of 100 on his progress report in English. As an English teacher, I was mortified. An 18?! How does that even happen?!
I felt like I’d failed as a mother, even though I thought I had done all the right things without smothering him. Every day, I asked if he had homework, I was there to help in whatever way he needed, and I supported him without telling him what to do.
It took some time to get over the “should haves” before I could call the teacher to set up a meeting. We all met, and my son was given the opportunity to make up his missing work. I’m happy to say that he never had a grade that low again.
As parents, we want to protect our children from anything that might cause them distress or harm. Unfortunately, as a result, we tend to overprotect by telling them what to do and how to do it. We unintentionally give them very few choices.
Autonomy is defined as “freedom from external control or influence; independence.” But why is it so important that young people have autonomy in their lives?
What exactly is the real power of personal autonomy?
1. When kids have autonomy, they own their actions
A few years back, in the middle of my 7th grade Language Arts class, a boy raised his hand to ask, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a writing team the way we have a basketball team?” The idea of a writing club was born.
The club was open to all 7th and 8th grade students in our small Maine school. They were given the freedom to determine everything about their club, including what night and time they wanted to meet. They decided how the club would run, what kind of writing they would do, and what to do with that writing.
The true power of letting them make decisions beyond just the subject matter of their writing was apparent when looking at the diversity of the 10-15 students in the club. No surprise, it was rare that any student would miss a meeting. And toward the end of the year, they decided to self-publish their writing as an anthology and sell it.
The following year, I offered the writing club again. However, it didn’t have quite the same magic as the previous year when it was the students’ own organic idea.
When young people act autonomously, they become invested in what they’re doing – because they’re doing it for themselves.
2. Autonomy promotes critical and creative thinking
In my opinion, the No Child Left Behind policy brought about a generation of Americans that has become hyper-scrutinized and over-tested. Teachers are judged on how they’re doing their jobs based on how students are performing on high-stakes tests.
And yet, neither the teachers nor students are thinking as critically nor creatively as we once were. We’ve fallen prey to focusing on the use of textbooks and practice tests, which get our minds used to operating within set constraints and predetermined “correct” choices.
Over time, this has diminished the tendency of many students to come up with unique and personal left-field solutions.
The same can be said for parents making decisions for their children in the hope of protecting them. While not all situations are appropriate for a child to have complete autonomy, giving our kids and students the freedom to examine things and make responsible personal choices is a great way to teach the art of good decision-making.
When we give our kids the freedom to make their own choices, we create much-needed opportunities for them to think things through and actively engage both their critical and creative thinking.
3. It’s all about “WANT”
I asked one of my friends about the importance of autonomy in his life, and he responded: “So I can do what I want, how I want, when I want, why I want, for whom I want, where I want, however many times I want.” The fact is, autonomy gives us the opportunity to live our truths.
Growing up, I often did things I didn’t want to because they were expected of me, whether by society, religion, or family. As I grew older, the me I wanted to be was buried beneath who I thought I was supposed to be. As a result, my self-esteem was low, I made poor decisions, and lost sight of what was important to me.
When our kids and students are able to listen to and act on their wants, they’re happier.
This doesn’t mean to let them run rampant and make every decision in their lives; it simply means they must have some freedom to think about what makes them happy so they can dedicate some of their time and attention to it.
When a person is happier, everything in life becomes more fulfilling, and a fulfilled individual is far more likely to make a positive impact on the world.
4. Autonomy builds confidence
At the beginning of each year, my students typically ask me to tell them exactly what they need to do for their first assignment. How many sentences? Does it need to be colored? Can they use pen? These questions may make things easier, but indulging them does little to foster a student’s ability to think for him/herself.
If we allow our kids certain freedoms, give them opportunities to do things their own way, and step back so they can solve problems based on their own ideas and instincts, their confidence will grow from the knowledge that they did it themselves. The more success that results from those decisions, the more their confidence will increase and prepare them for real challenges.
And, even if they fail, they’ll be failing and learning based on their own attempts, rather than in an effort to carry out someone else’s vision of what the “right way” is. In the long run, the experience will be positive no matter what!
Personal autonomy isn’t easy. Freedom to choose can be intimidating and scary. However, without autonomy, it’s too easy to rely on those around us and never gain comfort in our own actions and decisions.
If we start offering age-appropriate opportunities for our kids and students to choose their own paths now, we’ll be equipping them with the confidence and strength of purpose that makes personal autonomy so critical for future happiness and success.