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The other day two toddlers were playing outside my window and one toddler kept calling the other toddler a shortened version of his name. Despite repeatedly correcting him and asking his friend to address him by his full name, the toddler kept using the shortened version of his friends name. Eventually, fed up with his request being ignored the toddler loudly protested “My name is Unathi not Nathi!”

His loud proclamation caught the attention of his mother and she came out to mediate between the two toddlers. After briefly listening to his story, she swiftly overrode his autonomy in that moment by reducing his insistence that his friend pronounce the U in his name to a mountain out of a molehill situation.

At first I chuckled at the entire exchange, but I soon felt convicted by both my and the mother’s dismissive posture. Instead of encouraging Unathi and using the situation as a teachable moment by finding out why he felt so passionately about the U in his name being pronounced, we both disregarded his autonomy to a varying degree. I mean, Nathi vs Unathi — same difference right?

Why do we (adults) do this? Why does your child asserting their autonomy cause us to consciously or subconsciously downplay their innate need for autonomy?

What Does Autonomy Mean?

The original root of the word is an Ancient Greek word that means, ‘self-legislation’ or’self-governance.’

The Merriam – Webster Dictionary, defines autonomy as — the state of existing or acting separately from others : INDEPENDENCE

In its simplest sense, autonomy is about a person’s ability to act on his or her own values and interests.”

Faye Tucker, Family Studies researcher at the University of Lancaster.

Autonomy vs Disrespect

Many of us were raised under the guise that asserting our autonomy at a young age opens up the door to disrespect. This school of thought clearly exposes our very flawed, warped, and antiquated understanding of a healthy parent-child power dynamic.

Most parents dream of their children growing into well-rounded adults who lead meaningful and worthwhile lives. Instead of creating a safe space for our children to begin developing and practicing crucial skills that are vital to them becoming well-rounded adults we unwittingly fall into age-old patterns of over exerting our position of authority and stunting crucial developmental milestones children need in order to develop a healthy sense of autonomy.

Authoritarian Parenting Style

Authoritarian parenting, not to be confused with authoritative parenting (see previous blog post ‘Flipping The Parenting Script’), places a high value on obedience, discipline, and control. Its main pillars are power and coercion. Black South African families are particularly susceptible to this parenting style as a result of our historical violent laws that forcefully ripped our family units apart —  resulting in single parent or child headed homes.

According to clinical and developmental psychologist the Diana Baumrind, authoritarian parents:

  • Don’t encourage verbal give-and-take.
  • Are “obedience- and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without question.”
  • Tend to control their children through shaming, the withdrawal of love, or other punishments.
  • Don’t usually attempt to explain the reasons for rules.

The burden is on millennial parents to do the work of reconciling and unlearning this trauma informed parenting style and hold space for your child to grow in asserting their autonomy. Instead of responding with “because I said so” next time your child seeks to understand or disagrees with you. Take the time to model healthy ways of exerting autonomy by sitting down and patiently explaining your train of thought. In fact psychologists encourage parents to begin the process as early as 18 months.

Five Ideas To Help You Create  Autonomy-Supportive Parenting Style.

1. Support your child in making their choices – This will instil a sense of responsibility and a greater understanding of consequences. 

2. Give them space to struggle! – This can be challenging as our natural instinct is to protect our little humans. However, if we always protect them we rob them of the opportunity to build character in a safe, supportive and loving environment.

3. Allow them to problem solve for themselves.

4. Do not do what they can do for themselves. Should they need our help, they’ll ask for it.

5. Allow your child to speak for themselves. 

If Unathi had been encouraged to speak for himself, he would’ve created a situation where felt respected by his mother and it would have also been a powerful teachable moment for his friend.

In Conclusion – being an autonomy affirmative parent is not a luxury but a very important skill for your child to develop in order for them to become well- rounded adults who are proficient at managing their time and ultimately their lives.