Autonomy and Children

Dear Reader,

Here is another quote from Charlotte Mason’s second volume, Parents and Children:

“A single decision made by the parents which the child is, or should be, capable of making for itself, is an encroachment on the rights of the child, and a transgression on the part of the parents.”                                                                                       [p.18]

Do you think this is true? I have heard similar statements (from Oprah actually; don’t judge me too harshly; it was a long time ago) about not doing things for one’s child that they can do for themselves. The example in that case was running the bath water for a 9-year-old that should really be able to do so for themselves. That makes sense to me. But Miss Mason seems to take things a bit further.

I think our common wisdom these days is rather the opposite. We say don’t give children too many choices. It confuses and overwhelms them and leads to worse behavior and temper tantrums. I picture a little girl who has a whole closet full of church dresses taking hours to decide what to wear. Or a child who is always asked “what do you want to do now, Johnny?” who ends up melting down at the end of the day because he is overwhelmed.

I do, however, like the idea of encouraging autonomy in children which is what Charlotte has in mind (she says so actually in the previous sentence).  Ultimately, autonomy is our goal. Or perhaps I should say independence from us, the parents, since none of us are truly autonomous.

So I guess the question is when to we take those steps and how do we get there?

Charlotte Mason, in the section we are looking at, give s a couple of examples. One is the case of a mother who tells her daughter to get out-of-door exercise. This, in Charlotte’s view, is fine because it is requiring something which is good and necessary for the child.

Her other example is of  a father who is introverted who discourages his children from socializing. This she disapproves of because it is imposing the father’s own inclinations and wishes on the children.

So what about the examples I gave? How do they fit in? In the first instance, the one in which the little girl can’t decide which church dress to wear, I think there are other issues to consider. It is reasonable to me for the mother to say certain clothes are inappropriate for  church (bathing suits and tutus come to mind but perhaps also jeans and shorts).  But within the scope of appropriate clothes, it is better to give the girl her choice and the mother would be out of line to say things like “don’t you think you would look so much cuter in this really frilly one?” The dawdliness of the girl in deciding is another issue and I think Miss Mason would say that falls under the category of habit training.

The second case requires a little more discernment on the part of the parent I think. It is good to give children some say in the day’s activities. “Shall we go to the park or the zoo today?” for example. (Though I find with a few children these things work out very differently anyway.) But if too many choices overwhelm by the end of the day then perhaps the child is just not old enough for that level of autonomy yet. It is something that should be given in stages. Nor should the child be allowed to believe that they control the show. There must be times when the parent is clearly in charge and the child should respond appropriately, not whining because this is the one time they can’t have their way.

So I guess my conclusion is that I agree with the principle of giving children increasing autonomy. I am not sure I would go so far as to say it is a “transgression” on the part of the parents. I think it is an area that requires a lot of prayerful discernment to know what is necessary and what it only us imposing our preferences on them.


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