Toddler Mom Shares 5 Tips To Foster Children’s Autonomy (Without Saying Goodbye To Safety!)

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“Autonomy can help stop the tantrums, which is what we all want.

When you have a crying, tantrum-ing, beautiful little human, it can be hard. If you feel like your child is wonderful 80% of the time, but achingly difficult the other 20%, you’re not alone. This is pretty common in the younger years, especially during toddlerdom, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for the parents!

We’re often struggling with what to do and how to do it. I’ve had many moments where I’m ready to throw in the towel, but I know my kids need me. I started looking for solutions when my toddler couldn’t seem to get through the day without a tantrum. After trying the chore chart, sticker chart, bear chart, and a thousand other options, I realized obviously, things were not working for me and her.

I was scouring the internet for ideas of what to do to make her better, but I never stopped for a moment to think for myself. I graduated in psychology, with a focus in child psychology, and yet, here I was, studying random posts with anecdotal stories in hopes it would help my child. And, I think we’ve all been there. Educational background or not, we know our children best. A special chart may work for one, but certainly not the five others. Or, a certain discipline may work for one and not for others. However, there is one thing that works for all children, no matter their age. It’s called autonomy.

Young mom takes selfie with toddler children.
Courtesy of Jess Carpenter

What Is Autonomy?

Autonomy is something we all need to feel secure in. It’s the ability to make decisions for ourselves. You know when a well-meaning friend or relative says something to you about your life and you want to say, ‘Really? You don’t know what’s best for me. Thanks, though,’ while you roll your eyes? Well, that’s a little part of autonomy. 

Autonomy is a personality trait we all have. It’s our desire to make our own choices, have control over our lives, and the ability to feel secure in making that choice. However, autonomy doesn’t magically appear when you turn 18. Autonomy starts from the moment we’re born. And as parents, we often (accidentally) stomp on our child’s autonomy by making decisions for them and helping too much. 

Why Is Autonomy Important?

Autonomy is important because it’s something your child will use for the rest of their life. When autonomy is not fostered in early childhood development, when that child becomes an adult, they may have a harder time making rational and informed decisions, being confident in what they do, or know what it is they do and don’t like.

The goal when raising a child is to raise them well enough that they will become responsible members of society, right? We don’t want our kid to grow up and make horrible choices. And while they are responsible for their own actions, what we do when they’re young matters as well. We can help develop them into better adults.

What Does Autonomy Do?

Autonomy is the ability to have control over your own life and make rational decisions with confidence. However, autonomy does not excuse your behavior or mean you can disobey laws. For adults, it’s like knowing you have the ability to speed at 100mph, but understanding it will land you a ticket, so you won’t do it. You’re confident in the ability, but also make a rational decision that you aren’t going to do it.

Silly examples aside, autonomy in adults is important. Many problems surface when adults feel like they have no control over their lives. In fact, this sense of being out of control can lead to depression and anxiety. For children, it’s the same. However, as adults, we have to help them make rational decisions. So, how do we foster a child’s autonomy safely so they are confident in their own choices and feel like they have control over their lives without burning down our entire house, putting them in harm’s way? Great question.

We need our children to be confident in their own choices and feel like they have control over their lives to feel autonomous. We also need to keep our houses from being a disaster and make sure the kids aren’t going to be injured. So, while it may not be the smartest choice to let your toddler put away the butcher knives from the dishwasher, it is a smart idea to let them choose what chore they’d like to help with (just remove those butcher knives first!). 

I’ve put together a list of five simple ways you can increase your child’s autonomy without saying goodbye to safety.

Mom and two young children take selfie making duck face lips.
Courtesy of Jess Carpenter

1. Let Them Dress Themselves

By far, my favorite way to increase a child’s autonomy is letting them dress themselves. This applies to younger kids, but can also apply to older kids. For the older ones, when they come home with a style you’re not too fond of, don’t make fun of them. Unless it’s against their (or your) dress code for school, it’s okay. Just because they are choosing pink when you’d rather them choose white or black (you know, stuff that matches!), doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.

For the little ones, from the time my daughter was 18 months old, she would pick out her outfit. I would ask her, ‘What do you want to wear today?’ Her little chubby legs would waddle over to her dresser and she’d pick something out. Of course, there were times I had to redirect the choice (like when she’d choose two shirts and no pants), but it was a fun morning routine.

Now, my daughter loves choosing her outfits! Sometimes (okay, fine, most times!), the clothes don’t match. I’ll occasionally get comments from people in the grocery store, but I really don’t care. Her preschool teachers have never said a word, and the people I love think it’s great. But, even if they didn’t, it’s none of their business. Letting your child dress themselves lets them know they are in control of their own bodies (which is possibly the most important thing you can teach them). 

2. Let Them Do Chores Without You Hovering

Yep, I’m looking at you, meddling moms and dads of the world. I’ll admit it—I internally cringe when my three-year-old empties the dishes. Will she break a bowl? Will a glass shatter? Will the forks end up where the spoons go and the spoons end up where the knives go? You know what? It’s fine, I’ll just sit here and watch to make sure she does it right.

Sound familiar? Most of us do this, and it’s unfortunate because autonomy is all about trust. You hovering while they do their chore is not trusting them. Kids can smell that from a mile away! They know you don’t trust them, and it hurts their confidence. Just let them do (safe) chores without you hovering over them every minute.

You’re more than welcome to ask them if they need help. But if they say they’ve got it? Parents, they’ve got it! Leave your children alone sometimes. They’re much more capable than we think.

3. Monthly Dates

So far, developing your child’s autonomy doesn’t seem very fun, right? Well, tip number three is here to save the day! There’s nothing better than rewarding your child with a monthly date with just you and them. Here’s the key to letting this help develop their autonomy: Let them choose what you’re doing.

Do they want to go to McDonald’s even though you know how unhealthy it is? Well, get ready to see those golden arches! Do they want to go to the zoo? Pack some snacks! They want to shop for hours at the mall? Wear your Nikes. Manis and pedis? Grab the flip-flops (you too, Dad). Catch or batting cages? Awesome, just wear a helmet.

No matter what they want to do, no matter whether you think it’s going to be fun or not, do it. This is a great way to show you have trust in them, but it’s also a wonderful way for them to have control over what makes them happy.

4. Easy Choices

If you haven’t noticed yet, autonomy in early childhood is all about making choices. Letting your child choose things can be hard. It can also seem overwhelming for you. So, let’s make it easier. Give your child easy choices. Do they want apples or oranges? Chicken or chickpeas? Laundry or dishes? (See how I snuck that last one in there?)

Whether it’s chores that need to get done, dinner needing to be eaten, or a fun activity, let them make the choice. You can make big choices, like where they go to school, what appropriate TV shows they can watch, etc. But once those choices are established, let them make many of the small ones. 

It can even be as simple as, ‘What toothpaste should we buy for you? Bubblemint or spearmint?’ Seriously, it doesn’t have to be hard! The more small choices they get to make, the better their autonomy.

5. Don’t Abandon Them

Perhaps the most important thing of all, which also seems like a bit of a contradiction, is that you don’t abandon them. You want your child to be confident in their choices. You want them to feel secure in everything they do. But, they’re still little. They’re going to need your help.

Whether it’s your 16-year-old sitting on the couch with you after a hard day, or your two-year-old demanding they wear their Halloween costume to bed, don’t abandon them. If they ask for help and you’ve already encouraged them to try it themselves, give them help. Be there for their failures. Be there when they cry. Be there when they exclaim how hard things are. This builds trust, and trust builds autonomy.

Increasing your child’s autonomy lets them know they have full control over their bodies and their choices. This continues on later in life, which will help them to become responsible adults who are secure in their decisions. However, it also helps in the here-and-now. Kids who feel like they have control over their own lives are often better behaved, calmer, and more decisive.

It may take a little bit of work on your part, but in the end, the rewards are far worth it. Stop fighting so much over the little things and let your child steer the ship for a bit—it’ll give you both a break!”

parents walk on the beach while holding their two children, a son and daughter
Courtesy of Jess Carpenter

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jess Carpenter. You can follow her journey on Instagram, TikTok, and on her website. You can visit Jess’ author page here and buy her new book hereSubmit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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