Controlled Autonomy

Growing children is not something most parents do lightly. Whether you approach your parenting from a micro or a macro level, each decision you make for, and on behalf of your children carries with it a burden. This mother-lode of responsibility was probably not clearly articulated in the countless tomes of advice you’ve consulted over the years. But as you navigate the landscape of childrearing, the yin and yang of creating healthy, responsible children who can move easily within the society they live is contradictory and confusing. You want children who understand who they are, and have the confidence to hold that understanding strong through the often rough and challenging life they are facing.

And there lies one of the first hurdles faced by parents – the deep realisation that you cannot live your children’s lives. They have no choice but to live it themselves. You cannot smooth the way for their delicate little feet and you cannot wrap your hands around their precious little hearts to protect them. They must stand and face whatever will come. As a parent it is your job to make sure they are prepared and equipped with everything they need. Much of what they learn about life and how to face it will come from their formative years, the time when you have the most influence – and yet it is the time you yourself will be facing one of the most challenging periods of your own life.

You want to make sure your children are safe, physically, socially, and emotionally. But at the same time you have changed physically, your social reality may have undergone some major adjustments and emotionally you are charting unfamiliar territory. The last thing you may feel is in control, and so to get some traction on your own internal chaos, you suddenly find you have metamorphosed from a relatively random, messy shoot-from-the-hip kinda person into a neatness freak who clocks everything to the last minute and compulsively writes lists. You may also find you are very particular about little things like what your children wear and what they eat and when they eat it. But it is a well known theory that confidence does not come from being told what to do and think all the time, but from independent decision making and self motivated exploration. Happily for both you and your child there is a neutral territory here that will keep both parties happy and learning new skills at the same time. It’s called ‘controlled autonomy’ and here are two excellent examples of how to apply it to your life.

1) Clothes
Clothes are the outward expression of your inner personality. We wear certain outfits because they fit who we are. Children are still discovering who they are and what they wear can become a large part of exploring ideas and concepts of ‘self’. Sometimes items of clothing can give a sense of security – where change is everywhere, sometimes Thomas the Tank Engine pj’s are better, cheaper and less intimidating than a personal body guard – especially if you are 3yrs old.
If you are very particular about the clothes your child wears but are starting to find there is resistance to your choices, create a wardrobe full of fail-free clothing items and let your child decide what they are going to wear. They may not choose exactly what you would prefer but if you have selected well, they will still be presentable while at the same time developing a style of their own and the confidence to wear it . You cannot dictate personal style – but you can set general direction.

2) Food
Parent A: How do you get your children to eat brown bread?
Parent B: They don’t know there is any other kind.
Feeding your children is one of the hot-spots of parenting. Promoting healthy eating often comes at the cost of convenience and you can end up with a pantry filled with foods you would really rather not have. Sugar is the current antagonist in the food saga and the evidence is fast mounting that processed sugar is really really bad. But sugar will get food into children faster than you can say ‘eat’. There is sugar in most breakfast cereals, sugar in all bottled beverages with the exception of most waters, there is even sugar in some brands of popular crisps – the salt and vinegar flavour where sugar has no business what so ever.
Eliminating sugar from the household menu is seriously challenging – trying to do it retrospectively will notch this up quite a few degrees of difficulty (multiplied by the number of children involved). So the earlier you start the better. Thankfully there are are no-sugar advocates like Sarah Wilson who have cookbooks full of healthy delicious alternatives – including the brilliant I Quit Sugar: The Chocolate Cookbook. By controlling what is available, you can easily let them choose what to eat without constantly needing to monitor or dictate what can be eaten.

So while their choice becomes a sub-set of choices you’ve already made, it leaves them with enough autonomy to feel they have some empowerment while you can maintain a degree of (invisible) control.


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