Autonomy and The Terrible Twos

Autonomy and The Terrible Twos

You have heard the phrase “terrible twos” and been taught to cringe, but are they really so terrible?  What is so challenging about that stage?

Personally, it is one of my favorite ages.  It is when your child starts asserting more independence and learns to make decisions.  This means the child is moving away from you in their pursuit of autonomy.  This can mean butting heads when you decide your child must (you fill in the blank here) and he says “NO!, want__________”.  He is moving on from not just not wanting what you want, but moving towards knowing what he does want.

Autonomy is a good thing.  You want a child who develops into an independent responsible trust worthy adult with healthy boundaries.  The challenge lies in knowing how to allow safe autonomy.  Obviously your two-year-old cannot cross the street just because he knows he wants to, he doesn’t know how to.  And just because a child feels they can and should be allowed to do something does not mean they actually can.  So how do you decide the boundaries you need to implement that balances their safety with the need to help them develop autonomy (and your nerves)?

  1. You need to know what your child is capable of. While most 8-year olds may be too immature to cross the street, your particular child may be unusually precocious and cautious and can be relied on to safely cross the street.  While it might state that a two-year old should be motorically able to snip with scissors (this is true), can you trust your 2, 3 or even 4-year-old not to use the scissors inappropriately and play hairdresser?
  2. You need to show your child you trust them, even if you don’t. For this is how they learn to trust themselves to make a decision and trust others. However, do so safely and responsibly!  – Personally, I get scared whenever I see someone who is not sure-footed climbing steps.  Since no child has ever gone from just learning how to walk to confidently climbing stairs I would watch with my heart in my mouth, hovering nearby to catch them just in case, while allowing them the opportunity they needed to master stair climbing.  I did not think a 3-year-old is ready to use a peeler, adults often slip and peel their own finger, but when my daughter came home from school insisting her teacher had taught her how I had to show I believed her and believed in her (she could and did).
  3. The child needs to be able to handle the consequences of the responsibility – In the above example, had my daughter peeled herself we would have easily bandaged her up, a peeler is not a knife.  You can let your child choose their own clothes, unless they are inappropriately dressing for the weather and will likely get sick (or maybe if he will forever hold it against you, e.g. when the event will forever be commemorated – like when they want to wear their favorite sports team outfit to a family wedding where he will be in the pictures 😂)  It doesn’t matter how good a driver your 15-year old is (legally on your farm or with a permit where allowed), you don’t want them being arrested for driving under age independently on a public road.
  1. They need to know boundaries – Just because she is capable of using a peeler or scissors does not mean she can take the peeler and peel anything she wants whenever she wants or take the scissors and cut “her” hair or the hair of her friend who “let”.  The other half of this coin is you need to allow your child the authority to see it through.  If you tell your child s/he can pick his own clothes he may pick something that doesn’t match.  If you are concerned that he will make an unhealthy choice you may limit his authority by saying “You can pick one of these two outfits.” or “You can pick from your winter wardrobe on the right side of your closet today.”
  2. You may need to teach your child a specific skill when the prerequisite skills are in place. e.g. to hold the peeler only from the handle and peel away from you instead of towards you.
  3. You may need to scaffold the autonomy to help foster complete independence – For example, you may not feel your child is ready to cross the street completely independently, but the only street he needs to cross to get to school has a crossing guard.  Allowing him this compromise shows you have some trust in him, that he will only cross at that crosswalk and not jaywalk, while still keeping him appropriately safe for his level of readiness.  To teach my children to climb back down the steps, I would teach them how to crawl down backwards until they were ready to walk down facing forward. This was scaffolding as they knew how to crawl better than walk and could do so more safely than walk down the steps.  This still allowed them to descend independently. (For other people’s children that I have not been asked to teach I have to look away, I cannot bear to watch.)

Autonomy is something that your child needs your help in developing until adulthood.  When is s/he ready to use a knife? Use a stove and oven?  “Babysit” self? Babysit others?  Co-Lifeguard? Lifeguard independently?  Able to drive friends?  Get into a friend’s car (yes it depends which friend, can your child make that call and stand up for their safety or do they feel pressured to get into any peer’s car?), Be fiscally responsible?…

Half the battle is anticipating and being prepared for your child’s request for autonomy.  What would you put on your list and how would you decide your child is A) ready for the responsibility, B) simply not ready or C) requires scaffolding?

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