How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

4| Encouraging Autonomy

Most of the books on child-rearing tell us that one of our most important goals as parents is to help our children separate from us, to help them become independent individuals who will one day be able to function on their own without us. We’re urged not to think of our children as little carbon copies of us or as extensions of ourselves but as unique human beings with different temperaments, different tastes, different feelings, different desires, different dreams.

Yet how are we to help them become separate, independent persons? By allowing them to do things for themselves, by permitting them to wrestle with their own problems, by letting them learn from their own mistakes.

Easier said than done. I can still remember my first child struggling to tie his shoelaces and me watching patiently for about ten seconds and then bending down to do it for him.

And all my daughter had to do was just mention that she was having a quarrel with a friend, and I’d jump in with instant advice for her.

And how could I let my children make mistakes and suffer failure when all they had to do was listen to me in the first place?

You may be thinking, “What’s so terrible about helping children tie their shoelaces, or telling them how to resolve an argument with a friend, or seeing to it that they don’t make mistakes? After all, children are younger and less experienced. They really are dependent on the adults around them.”

Here’s the problem. When one person is continually dependent on another, certain feelings arise. In order to get clear on what those feelings might be, please read the following statements and write down your reactions:

I. You are four years old. In the course of the day you hear your parents tell you:

“Eat your string beans. Vegetables are good for you.”

“Here, let me zip that zipper for you.”

“You’re tired. Lie down and rest.”

“I don’t want you playing with that boy. He uses bad language.”

“Are you sure you don’t have to go to the bathroom?”

Your reaction:





II. You are nine years old. In the course of the day your parents tell you:

“Don’t bother to try on that jacket. Green isn’t your color.”

“Give the jar to me. I’ll unscrew the cap for you.”

“I’ve laid your clothes out for you.”

“Do you need help with your homework?”

Your reaction:





III. You are seventeen years old. Your parent says:

“It’s not necessary for you to learn to drive. I’m much too nervous about accidents. I’d be happy to drive you wherever you want to go. All you have to do is ask.”

Your reaction:





IV. You are an adult. Your employer says:

“I’m going to tell you something for your own good. Stop making suggestions about how to improve things around here. Just do your job. I’m not paying you for your ideas. I’m paying you to work.”

Your reaction:





V. You are a citizen of a new nation. At a public meeting you hear a visiting dignitary, from a rich, powerful country, announce:

“Because your nation is still in its infancy and is as yet undeveloped, we are not unmindful of your needs. We plan to send you experts and materials to show you how to run your farms, your schools, your businesses, and your government. We’ll also send professionals in family planning who will help you reduce your country’s birthrate.”

Your reaction:





It’s probably safe to say that you wouldn’t want your children feeling toward you most of the feelings you’ve just written down. And yet when people are placed in dependent positions, along with a small amount of gratitude they usually do experience massive feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, resentment, frustration, and anger. This unhappy truth can present a dilemma for us as parents. On the one hand, our children are clearly dependent on us. Because of their youth and inexperience, there’s so much we have to do for them, tell them, show them. On the other hand, the very fact of their dependency can lead to hostility.

Are there ways to minimize our children’s feelings of dependency? Are there ways to help them become responsible human beings who can function on their own? Fortunately, the opportunities to encourage our children’s autonomy present themselves every day. Here are some specific skills that can help children to rely on themselves rather than on us.

To Encourage Autonomy

1. Let children make choices.

2. Show respect for a child’s struggle.

3. Don’t ask too many questions.

4. Don’t rush to answer questions.

5. Encourage children to use sources outside the home.

6. Don’t take away hope.



These are all choices that give a child valuable practice in making decisions. It must be very hard to be an adult who is forced to make decisions about career, lifestyle, mate without having had a good deal of experience in exercising your own judgment.



When a child’s struggle is respected, he gathers courage 
to see a job through by himself.



Too many questions can be experienced as an invasion of one’s private life. 
Children will talk about what they want to talk about when they want to talk about it.



When children ask questions, they deserve the chance to explore the answer for themselves first.



We want our children to know that they’re not completely dependent on us. The world outside the home—
the pet shop, the dentist, the school, an older child—can all be called upon to help them with their problems.



By trying to protect children from disappointment, 
we protect them from hoping, striving, dreaming, 
and sometimes from achieving their dreams.

Even though many of these skills you just looked at may seem like common sense at first, there’s nothing common about any of them. It takes some determination and practice to talk to children in ways that foster their independence.

In the following exercise you’ll see six typical statements by parents. Please change each statement to one that will encourage a child’s autonomy.

Parent originally says:

Revised statement that encourages autonomy:

1. PARENT: Take your bath now.

1. (Offer a choice.)

2. PARENT: Why are you having such a hard time putting your boots on? Here, put your foot up. I’ll do it for you.

2. (Show respect for the child’s struggle.)

3. PARENT: Did you have fun at camp today? Did you swim? Did you like the other children? What’s your counselor like?

3. (Don’t ask too many questions.)

4. CHILD: Why does Daddy have to work every day?
PARENT: Daddy has to go to work every day so that we can have this nice house, good food, pretty clothing, and . . .

4. (Don’t rush to answer questions.)

5. TEENAGER: I’m getting too fat. I want you to put me on a diet. What should I be eating? 
PARENT: I’ve been telling you for years now to stop eating all that cake and candy and start eating fruit and vegetables.

5. (Encourage children to use sources outside the home.)

6. CHILD: Dad, I’m going to be a teacher when I grow up.
DAD: Don’t count on it. Graduate schools are filled with teachers who can’t get jobs when they get out of school.

6. (Don’t take away hope.)

If you’re thinking that the six skills you’ve just practiced aren’t the only ones that encourage a child’s autonomy, you’d be right. Actually, all the skills you’ve studied so far in this book help children see themselves as separate, responsible, competent people. Whenever we listen to children’s feelings, or share our own feelings with them, or invite them to problem-solve with us, we encourage their self-reliance.

I know that for me the idea of encouraging the children to be in charge of the details of their own lives was revolutionary. I can still hear my grandmother saying admiringly of a neighbor, “She’s the most wonderful mother. What she doesn’t do for that child!” I grew up believing that good mothers “did” for their children. Only I took it one step further. I not only “did” for them, I thought for them as well. Result? Every day, over every trivial issue, there would be a contest of wills, ending with bad feelings all around.

When I finally learned to turn over to the children the responsibilities that rightfully belonged to them, everyone’s disposition improved. Here’s what helped me: Whenever I’d feel myself starting to get agitated or involved, I’d ask myself, “Do I have any choice here? . . . Must I take over? . . . Or can I put the children in charge instead?”

In this next exercise you’ll see a series of situations that often get parents agitated, involved, or both. As you read each situation, ask yourself:

I. What can I say or do to keep my child dependent on me?

II. What could I say or do to encourage my child’s autonomy?

Some skills that might be helpful

New Skills

Old Skills

Offer a choice.

Accept your child’s feelings.

Show respect for a child’s

Describe what you


Give information.

Don’t ask too many questions.


Don’t rush to answer questions.


Encourage use of sources 
outside the home.


Don’t take away hope.


CHILD: I was late for school today. You have to wake me up earlier tomorrow.

PARENT: (keeping child dependent)


PARENT: (encouraging autonomy)


CHILD: I don’t like eggs and I’m tired of cold cereal. I’m not going to eat breakfast anymore.

PARENT: (keeping child dependent)


PARENT: (encouraging autonomy)


CHILD: Is it cold out? Do I need a sweater?

PARENT: (keeping child dependent)


PARENT: (encouraging autonomy)


CHILD: Oh heck, I can never get this button to button.

PARENT: (keeping child dependent)


PARENT: (encouraging autonomy)


CHILD: Know what? I’m going to start saving my allowance for a horse.

PARENT: (keeping child dependent)


PARENT: (encouraging autonomy)


CHILD: Betsy wants me to come to her party, but I don’t like most of the kids who are going. What should I do?

PARENT: (keeping child dependent)


PARENT: (encouraging autonomy)


I suspect that some of the statements you wrote down came to you quickly and that others took considerable thought. It can be a challenge to find the language that engages a child’s sense of responsibility.

The fact is, this whole business of encouraging autonomy can be quite complicated. As much as we understand the importance of our children being independent, there are forces within us that work against it. First, there’s the matter of sheer convenience. Most of us today are busy and in a hurry. We usually wake the children ourselves, button their buttons, tell them what to eat and what to wear, because it seems so much easier and faster to do it for them.

Then we have to cope with our strong feelings of connectedness to our children. We have to fight against seeing their failures as our failures. It’s hard to allow those so close and dear to us to struggle and make mistakes when we’re certain that a few words of wisdom could protect them from pain or disappointment.

It also takes great restraint and self-discipline on our part not to move in with advice, particularly when we’re sure we have the answer. I know that to this day whenever one of my children asks, “Mom, what do you think I should do?” I have to sit on myself not to tell them immediately what I think they should do.

But there’s something even larger that interferes with our rational desire to help our children separate from us. I remember so well the deep satisfaction that came from being so totally needed by three small human beings. And so it was with mixed feelings that I discovered that a mechanical alarm clock could wake my kids more efficiently than all my motherly reminding. And it was also with mixed feelings that I gave up my job as reader of bedtime stories when the children finally learned to read by themselves.

It was my own conflicting emotions about their growing independence that helped me understand a story told to me by a nursery school teacher. The teacher described her efforts to convince a young mother that her son really would be fine if she wasn’t sitting there in the classroom with him. Five minutes after the mother left, it became obvious that little Jonathan needed to head for the bathroom. When the teacher urged him to go, he mumbled unhappily, “Can’t.”

She asked, “Why not?”

“ ’Cause my Mommy isn’t here,” Jonathan explained. “She claps for me when I finish.”

The teacher thought for a moment. “Jonathan, you can go to the bathroom and then clap for yourself.”

Jonathan looked wide-eyed.

The teacher led him to the bathroom and waited. After a few minutes, from behind the closed door she heard the sound of applause.

Later that day the mother called her to say that the first words out of Jonathan’s mouth when he came home were “Mommy, I can clap for myself. I don’t need you anymore!”

“Would you believe it,” the teacher exclaimed to me, “The mother said she was actually depressed about this.”

I could believe it. I could believe that despite our feelings of pride in our children’s progress and joy in their growing independence, there could also be the ache and the emptiness of no longer being needed.

It’s a bittersweet road we parents travel. We start with total commitment to a small, helpless human being. Over the years we worry, plan, comfort, and try to understand. We give our love, our labor, our knowledge, and our experience—so that one day he or she will have the inner strength and confidence to leave us.


1. Put into action at least two skills that would encourage your child’s sense of himself or herself as a separate, competent, self-reliant person.

2. What was your child’s reaction?



3. Is there anything you’ve been doing for your child that your child might start doing for himself or herself?



4. How could you shift this responsibility to your child without having him or her feel overwhelmed? (Most children do not respond well to “You’re a big boy [or girl] now. You’re old enough to dress yourself, feed yourself, make your own bed,” etc.)



5. Read Part II of “Encouraging Autonomy.”

A Quick Reminder . . .

To Encourage Autonomy


“Are you in the mood for your gray pants, or your red pants?”


“A jar can be hard to open. Sometimes it helps if you 
tap the lid with a spoon.”


“Glad to see you. Welcome home.”


“That’s an interesting question. What do you think?”


“Maybe the pet shop owner would have a suggestion.”


“So you’re thinking of trying out for the play! That should be an experience.”


Comments About Each Skill

I. Let Children Make Choices

It might seem inconsequential to ask a child whether he wants a half glass of milk or a whole, his toast light or dark; but to the child each small choice represents one more opportunity to exert some control over his own life. There is so much a child must do that it’s not hard to understand why he becomes resentful and balky.

“You must take your medicine.”

“Stop drumming on the table.”

“Go to bed now.”

If we can offer him a choice about how something is to be done, very often that choice is enough to reduce his resentment.

“I can see how much you dislike this medicine. Would it be easier for you to take it with apple juice or ginger ale?”

“The drumming really bothers me. You can stop drumming and stay. You can drum in your own room. You decide.”

“It’s Mommy and Daddy’s time to talk and your time to be in bed. Do you want to go to sleep now or do you want to play awhile in bed and call us when you’re ready to be tucked in?”

Some parents feel uncomfortable about using this skill. They claim that a forced choice isn’t much of a choice at all and becomes just another way to box a child in. An understandable objection. One alternative is to invite the child to come up with his own choice that would be acceptable to all parties. Here’s what a father told us he did:

“My wife and I were about to cross the street with Tony—he’s three—and the baby. Tony hates it when we hold his hand and struggles to get loose—sometimes in the middle of the street. Before we crossed I said, ‘Tony, as I see it you have two choices. You can take hold of Mommy’s hand or you can take my hand. Or maybe you have another idea that’s safe.’

“Tony thought for a second and said, ‘I’ll hold the carriage.’ His choice was fine with us.”

II. Show Respect for a Child’s Struggle

We used to think that when we told a child something was “easy,” we were encouraging him. We realize now that by saying, “Try it, it’s easy” we do him no favor. If he succeeds in doing something “easy,” he feels he hasn’t accomplished much. If he fails, then he’s failed to do something simple.

If on the other hand we say, “It’s not easy” or “That can be hard,” he gives himself another set of messages. If he succeeds, he can experience the pride of having done something difficult. If he fails, he can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that his task was a tough one.

Some parents feel they’re being phony when they say, “That can be hard.” But if they were to look at the task from the point of view of an inexperienced child they would realize that the first few times you do anything new it really is hard. (Avoid saying, “That must be hard for you.” A child might think, “Why for me? Why not for anyone else?”)

Other parents complained that it was almost unbearable to stand there and watch a child struggle without offering more than just empathy. But rather than taking over and doing the job for the child, we suggest you give some useful information instead:

“Sometimes it helps if you push the end of the zipper all the way down into the little case before you pull it up.”

“Sometimes it helps if you roll the clay into a soft ball before you try to make something.”

“Sometimes it helps if you turn the knob of a lock a few times before you try the combination again.”

We like the words “sometimes it helps,” because if it doesn’t help the child is spared feelings of inadequacy.

Does this mean that we must never do for our children what they can do for themselves? We trust each parent to sense when a child is tired or in need of extra attention, or even a little babying. At certain times there is great comfort that comes from having your hair brushed or your socks pulled on for you, even though you’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. As long as we, as parents, are aware that our basic direction is to help our children be in charge of themselves, we can comfortably enjoy “doing for them” occasionally.

III. Don’t Ask Too Many Questions

The classic “Where did you go?” . . . “Out” . . . “What did you do?” . . . “Nothing” didn’t come from nowhere. Other defensive tactics children use to fend off questions they aren’t ready or willing to answer are “I dunno” or “Leave me alone.”

One mother told us she felt she wasn’t being a good parent if she didn’t ask her son questions. She was amazed to discover that when she stopped bombarding him with questions and listened with interest when he did talk, he began to open up to her.

Does this mean you may never ask your child questions? Not at all. The important thing is to be sensitive to the possible 
effect of your questions.

Caution: One common parental inquiry that seems to be experienced as a pressure is “Did you have fun today?” What a demand to make upon a child! Not only did he have to go to the party (school, play, camp, dance) but the expectation is that he should enjoy himself. If he didn’t, he has his own disappointment to cope with plus that of his parents. He feels he’s let them down by not having a good time.

IV. Don’t Rush to Answer Questions

In the course of growing up, children ask a bewildering variety of questions:

“What is a rainbow?”

“Why can’t the baby go back to where she came from?”

“Why can’t people just do whatever they want?”

“Do you have to go to college?”

Parents often feel put on the spot by these questions and search their minds for immediate, appropriate answers. The pressure they impose on themselves is unnecessary. Usually when a child asks a question she’s already done some thinking about the answer. What she can use is an adult who will act as a sounding board to help her explore her thoughts further. There’s always time for the adult to supply the “correct” answer later if it still seems important.

By giving our children immediate answers, we do them no favor. It’s as if we’re doing their mental exercise for them. It’s much more helpful to children to have their questions turned back to them for further examination:

“You wonder about that.”

“What do you think?”

We might even repeat the question.

“Why can’t people just do whatever they want?”

We can credit the questioner:

“You’re asking an important question—one that philosophers have asked for centuries.”

There needn’t be any hurry. The process of searching for the answer is as valuable as the answer itself.

V. Encourage Children to Use Sources Outside the Home

One way to lessen a child’s feelings of dependency on his family is to show him that there is a larger community out there with valuable resources waiting to be tapped. The world is not an alien place. There is help to be had when you need it.

Aside from the obvious benefit to the child, this principle also relieves the parent of having to be the “heavy” all the time. The school nurse can discuss sensible eating habits with the overweight child; the shoe salesman can explain what continual use of sneakers does to feet; the librarian can help a youngster wrestle with a tough research paper; the dentist can explain what happens to teeth that aren’t brushed. Somehow all these outside sources carry more weight than volumes of talk from Mother or Dad.

VI. Don’t Take Away Hope

Much of the pleasure of life lies in dreaming, fantasizing, anticipating, planning. By trying to prepare children for the possibility of disappointment, we can deprive them of important experiences.

A father told us about his nine-year-old daughter who had developed a passion for horses. One day she asked him if he would buy her a horse. He said it took some effort not to tell her that it was out of the question because of money, space, and town ordinances. Instead, he said, “So you wish you could have a horse of your own. Tell me about it.” Then he listened as she went into long detail about how she’d feed her horse and groom him and take him for rides every day. Just talking about her dream to him seemed to be enough for her. She never pressed him again actually to buy the horse. But after that conversation, she took books out of the library about horses, drew sketches of horses, and started saving part of her allowance to buy land one day for her horse. A few years later she applied for a job helping out at a local stable, where she traded her services for occasional rides. By the time she was fourteen, her interest in horses had waned. One day she announced that she was buying a ten-speed bike with her “horse money.”

More Ways to Encourage Autonomy

I. Let Her Own Her Own Body.

Refrain from constantly brushing the hair out of her eyes, straightening her shoulders, dusting off lint, tucking her blouse into her skirt, rearranging her collar. Children experience this kind of fussing over them as an invasion of their physical privacy.

II. Stay Out of the Minutiae of a Child’s Life.

Few children appreciate hearing, “Why do you write with your nose on the paper? . . . Sit up when you do your homework . . . Take your hair out of your eyes. How can you see what you are doing? . . . Button your cuffs. They look so sloppy hanging open . . . That old sweatshirt has got to go. Get yourself a new one . . . You spent your allowance on that? Well, I think it’s a waste of money.”

Many children react to this kind of talk with an irritable, “Ma-ah!” Or “Da-ad!” Translation: “Quit bugging me. Get off my back. It’s my business.”

III. Don’t Talk About a Child in Front of Him—No Matter How Young the Child.

Picture yourself standing next to your mother as she tells a neighbor any of the following:

“Well, in the first grade he was unhappy because of his reading, but now he’s doing better.”

“She loves people. Everybody’s her friend.”

“Don’t mind him. He’s a little shy.”

When children hear themselves discussed this way, they feel like objects—possessions of their parents.

IV. Let a Child Answer for Himself.

Over and over again the parent, in the presence of the child, is asked questions like:

“Does Johnny enjoy going to school?”

“Does he like the new baby?”

“Why isn’t he playing with his new toy?”

The real mark of respect for the child’s autonomy is to say to the inquiring adult, “Johnny can tell you. He’s the one who knows.”

V. Show Respect for Your Child’s Eventual “Readiness.”

Sometimes a child wants to do something very much but isn’t emotionally or physically ready for it. She wants to use the bathroom like a “big girl” but can’t yet. He wants to go swimming like the other kids, but he’s still afraid of the water. She wants to stop sucking her thumb, but when she’s tired it feels so good.

Instead of forcing, urging, or embarrassing a youngster, we can express our confidence in her ultimate readiness:

“I’m not concerned. When you’re ready, you’ll get into the water.”

“When you decide to, you’ll stop sucking your thumb.”

“One of these days, you’ll use the bathroom just like Mommy and Daddy.”

VI. Watch Out for Too Many “Nos.”

There will be many times as parents when we’ll have to thwart our children’s desires. Yet some children experience a blunt “No” as a call to arms, a direct attack on their autonomy. They mobilize all their energy to counterattack. They scream, have tantrums, call names, get sullen. They barrage the parent with “Why not?” . . . You’re mean . . . I hate you!”

It’s exhausting even for the most patient of parents. So what do we do? Give in? Say “Yes” to everything? Obviously not. That way lies the tyranny of the spoiled brat. Fortunately, we have some helpful alternatives that allow the parent to be firm without inviting a confrontation.


A. Give Information (and leave out the “No”):

CHILD: Can I go over to Suzie’s to play now?

Instead of “No, you can’t.”

Give the facts:

“We’re having dinner in five minutes.”

With that information, a child might tell herself, “I guess I can’t go now.”

B. Accept Feelings:

CHILD: (At the zoo) I don’t want to go home now. Can’t we stay?

Instead of “No, we have to go now!”

Accept his feelings:

“I can see if it were up to you, you’d stay for a long, long time.” (As you take him by the hand to go) “It’s hard to leave a place you enjoy so much.”

Sometimes resistance is lessened when someone understands how you feel.

C. Describe the Problem:

CHILD: Mom, can you drive me to the library now?

Instead of “No, I can’t. You’ll just have to wait.”

Describe the problem:

“I’d like to help you out. The problem is that the electrician is coming in the next half hour.”

D. When Possible, Substitute a “Yes” for a “No”:

CHILD: Can we go to the playground?

Instead of “No, you haven’t had your lunch yet.”

Substitute a “Yes”:

“Yes, certainly. Right after lunch.”

E. Give Yourself Time to Think:

CHILD: Can I sleep over at Gary’s house?

Instead of “No, you slept there last week.”

Give yourself a chance to think:

“Let me think about it.”

This little sentence accomplishes two things: It takes the edge off the child’s intensity (at least he knows his request will be seriously considered) and gives the parent time to think through her feelings.

It’s true, the word “No” is shorter, and some of these alternatives seem much longer. But when you consider the usual fallout from “No,” the long way is often the short way.

More About Advice

The moment we mention to a group that giving advice to children may interfere with their autonomy, many parents are immediately up in arms. They feel, “Now that’s going too far!” They cannot understand why they should be deprived of the right to share their parental wisdom. What follows are the questions of one persistent woman and a summary of the answers we gave her.

Why shouldn’t my child have the benefit of my advice when she has a problem? For example, my daughter, Julie, wasn’t sure she should go to her friend’s birthday party because she didn’t like some of the other girls who were being invited. They “always whisper and call names.” What’s wrong with telling Julie that she should go anyway, because otherwise she’ll be letting down her friend?

When you give immediate advice to children, they either feel stupid (“Why didn’t I think of that myself?”), resentful (“Don’t tell me how to run my life!”), or irritated (“What makes you think I didn’t think of that already?”).

When a child figures out for herself what she wants to do, she grows in confidence and is willing to assume responsibility for her decision.

Are you saying, then, that I should do nothing when my child has a problem? The few times I’ve told Julie, “It’s your problem; you deal with it,” she seemed very upset.

Children do feel hurt and deserted when their parents ignore their problems. But between the extremes of ignoring completely or moving in with instant advice there’s much a parent can do:

a) Help her sort out her tangled thoughts and feelings.

“From what you’ve been telling me, Julie, you seem to have two feelings about that party. You want to be with your friend on her birthday, but you don’t want to have to contend with the girls you don’t like.”

b) Restate the problem as a question.

“So the question seems to be ‘How do you find a way to be at the party and deal with the name-calling of some of the girls?’”

It’s a good idea to keep quiet after you’ve asked a question like this. Your silence provides the soil in which the child’s solutions can grow.

c) Point out resources your child can use outside the home.

“I’ll bet there are websites that have ideas on how to cope with name-calling and put-downs. You may want to see what they suggest.”

Suppose I do all that and then think of a solution that I’m sure Julie hasn’t thought of. Can I mention it to her?

After she’s had time to become more clear about what she thinks and feels, she’ll be able to give your idea a fair hearing—particularly if you introduce it in a way that shows respect for her autonomy:

“How would you feel about bringing a video to the party, like the one with that new comedian? Maybe the girls will be too busy laughing to start whispering.”

When we preface our suggestion with “How would you feel about . . .” or “Would you consider . . . ,” we acknowledge the fact that the advice that seems so “sensible” to us can be “not so sensible” to the child.

But suppose I feel strongly that Julie should go to the party. Must I remain silent?

After a child has explored her problem, it can be helpful for her to hear her parents’ thoughts or convictions:

“It would bother me to think that you would have to miss the fun of a party because of the way some other girls act.”

“I think it’s important not to disappoint a good friend on her birthday, even if it entails some sacrifice.”

A young person is entitled to know her parents’ values. Even if she chooses not to act upon them just now, you can be sure you’ve given her something to think about.

When Parents Encourage Autonomy

The week following one of our sessions on autonomy, the parents in our group had a great deal to tell one another.

I had two “firsts” this week with Danny. I let him work the bathtub faucet so that he could get the water temperature the way he likes it, and I let him make his own breakfast.

I always cut Rachel’s food for her, because I didn’t trust her with a knife. I finally bought her a little plastic knife, and now she feels very grown-up cutting her own meat.

When Shana was young and spilled anything, I always said, “Oh, Shana,” and wiped it up for her. Now with Alyssa (fifteen months) I leave her cup on a small table. The first time she spilled, I pointed to the juice and showed her how to wipe it up with a paper towel. Now whenever she spills, she points to the paper towels and willingly cleans it up. Yesterday I left the towel out, and she took care of it herself, and then she showed me!

I can’t stand it when the kids push food onto their forks with their fingers, or eat with their elbows on the table, or wipe their hands on their jeans instead of using their napkins. Yet I hate to constantly pick on them.

Last night I turned the problem over to them. Their solution: Three times a week we’d have “Manners Night,” and the rest of the time they could eat the way they wanted, and I wouldn’t say anything. (They even suggested that once a week we all “go natural,” use no utensils, and eat everything with our fingers—including soup! But that was more than I could go along with.)

I told my son, “You have twenty minutes till bedtime. You can keep coloring and then go straight to bed or you can get ready for bed now and then have time to play with your circus lights in your bed.” Immediate stampede to put pj’s on, brush teeth, etc.

Nicole was crying and trying to button her blouse. She came to me and shoved the button in front of my nose. I said, “These small buttons are not easy to deal with. They can be so frustrating.”

She backed away and kept trying herself. I was ready to give in and button it for her when she said, “There. I’ve done it!” and marched out.

I used to have clothing fights all the time with my four-year-old. Now I let her wear whatever she wants when there is no school. On school days I lay out two outfits on her bed and she decides.

I’m so proud of myself. I finally put an end to the daily hassles with my son over whether he should wear his sweater or his jacket. I told him, “Sam, I’ve been thinking. Instead of my telling you what to wear every day, I think you can tell yourself. Let’s work out a chart and decide what clothing goes with what degree of temperature.”

We drew up a chart together:

69 degrees and over . . . . . . no sweater

between 50 and 68 degrees . . . . . . sweater weather

49 degrees and under . . . . . . heavy jacket

Then I bought a large thermometer and he hung it outside on a tree. Now he looks at it every morning and there are no more arguments. I feel like a genius.

I didn’t ask Howie any questions about what he did at camp. I allowed him to talk about what he wanted to, and he talked a blue streak.

Jody asked me, “Why don’t we ever go anyplace good on vacation, like Bermuda or Florida?”

I almost started to answer her, but remembered not to. I said, “Why don’t we?”

She stomped around the kitchen and said, “I know, I know . . . Because it’s too expensive . . . Well, at least can we go to the zoo?”

I have to get used to the idea of not answering my son’s questions for him. And I think he’s going to have to get used to it, too. Here’s what happened last week:

JOHN: Tell me how to make the atom bomb.

ME: That’s an interesting question.

JOHN: Well, tell me.

ME: I’d have to think about it.

JOHN: Think about it now and tell me.

ME: I can’t. But let’s think about who or what could help us get the answer.

JOHN: I don’t want to go to the library and look it up. Just tell me!

ME: I’m not able to answer that question without help, John.

JOHN: Then I’ll ask Daddy. And if he doesn’t know, then I’ll ask William (a third grader). But it makes me mad that a third-grade kid knows more than a dummy mommy.

ME: No name-calling in this house!

Kevin told me he was going to sell the squash from his garden to the neighbors. I almost stopped him, because they were half the size of the ones in the supermarket and I didn’t want him bothering the neighbors. But he was so excited that I let him. Besides, I didn’t want to “take away hope.”

He came back an hour later with a big smile on his face, seventy-five cents, and only one leftover squash. He said that Mrs. Greenspan told him he was an “enterprising young man” and “what did that mean?”

Jason told me he wants to be a policeman, a fireman, a fisherman, and an astronaut. I didn’t foredoom him.

I’m doing better at staying out of the kids’ fights. I tell them that I’m sure they can work it out themselves. And a lot of times they do.

These last few contributions were handed in at the end of the session:

. . . To this day my friends still remark at my independence. I am one of five children whose father worked six or seven days a week—depending upon how his retail business was going. I’m second from the oldest and became independent and self-reliant because I had to. My mother couldn’t possibly “do” for five children and survive if she didn’t teach us to do for ourselves.

However, I have ambivalent feelings about my childhood memories. I was proud that I didn’t run to my mother and/or my dad to help with many problems and fears and needs, as did my friends. On the other hand, I would have liked it if it were also my decision about whether or not I wanted to confide in or be helped by a parent. (I knew my request would be denied on the basis of lack of time or whatever . . . so I stopped asking and did for myself.)

Children always want to be grown-up, but they still need to be children, need to grow gradually. I am proud of my mother’s efficiency and capability in teaching us our routine, but I feel that there should have been the option to go to my parents when I needed them.

There is always so much for Kirk to do when he gets home from school that he never gets to any of it unless I keep after him. Finally, I wrote this note:

Dear Kirk,

Dad and I are unhappy because lately we seem to be fighting with you to do the things you know to do.

How long would you need to come up with a positive program for handling all you have to do? Twenty-four hours? More? We’d like to have a plan from you, in writing, by the end of the week that you think will work for you. It will need to include adequate time for:

—moving your arms 10 minutes, three times a day.

(He broke his arm and hasn’t been doing the exercises the doctor gave him.)

—walking the dog



—fun and play



On Thursday night he presented us with a written schedule, and he’s pretty much kept to it.

Paul was really worried about his report card. We were getting signals for days and days before it came. He’d say things like “I’m not gonna get such a good mark in math . . . I saw my mark in Mr. D’s book. I wasn’t supposed to see it.”

In the evening after supper I said, “Paul, come over and let’s look at your report card. He came over and his eyes were going every which way because he was anxious, but he sat down in my lap. He said, “Dad, you’re not gonna like it.”

ME: Well, let’s see, Paul. It is your report card. How do you like it?

PAUL: Wait’ll you see the math.

ME: Right now I’m not looking at the math. Let’s start at the top. Let’s see, there’s a G (Good) in reading.

PAUL: Yeah, reading is okay.

ME: And I see a G in penmanship and you were having a lot of problems in penmanship. So you’re coming along there . . . And you’ve got an E (Excellent) in spelling! You were worried about it, too . . . This report card is looking good to me . . . English, an S.

PAUL: But I ought to be doing better in English.

ME: S is satisfactory.

PAUL: Yeah, but I should be doing better.

ME: Well now, math. What do I see there—an M (Minimum).

PAUL: I knew you were going to be mad!

ME: So this is the subject you’re having some problems with.

PAUL: Oh yeah, I’m going to do much better in math.

ME: How are you going to do it?

PAUL: Well, I’ll try harder.

ME: How?

PAUL: (long pause) I’ll study harder and I’ll do all my homework . . . And I’ll finish my papers in school.

ME: Sounds as if you’re setting goals for yourself. Let’s get a piece of paper and write some of them down.

Paul got the paper and pencil and we listed all his subjects with the mark that he got next to it. In the second column, he wrote down the mark he would aim for on his next report card.

The surprising part is that I thought he was just going to zero in on the math and improve that. He decided to improve not only math but English, social studies, and science. When he got to math, he said he was going to improve all the way from an M to an E.

ME: Paul, that’s quite a jump. Do you think you can do that?

PAUL: Oh yeah, I’m really going to work at math.

At the end of the report card, there’s a space for a parent’s comment and signature. I wrote: “I have discussed Paul’s report card with him, and he has decided to set new goals for himself. He plans to work harder—especially in math.” Then I signed it and asked Paul to sign it, too.

The goal sheet was taped to his bedroom door so he could refer to it. For the next three days he came home with Es on his math papers! I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Paul, when you set your mind to something there’s no stopping you!”

I was raised in a very strict family. From the time I was small I was told what to do and when to do it. Whenever I asked “Why?” my father said, “Because I said so.” I soon learned not to question.

When I had a son of my own there was one thing I was sure of. I didn’t want to raise him that way. But I wasn’t sure of what to do instead. The session on autonomy was very helpful to me. Here are some of the things that happened, which will give you an idea of what I mean.

When I became a single father I began to notice things I never did before. Robby was always stuffing himself with cookies. So I hid the cookie box and handed them out to him one at a time. The day after our last meeting, I came home with a box of cookies and put it on the table. I said, “Robby, I’m not going to be the cookie policeman anymore. This is the only box of cookies I’m buying this week. You can decide if you want to eat it all at once or if you want to make it last for the rest of the week. It’s up to you.” And that was it. I never had to say another word to him. He ended up taking two cookies every day and three on the weekend.

Also, I used to sit with him every night to help him with his homework, and we’d end up yelling at each other. One night I went into the living room and started to read the paper. Robby said, “Daddy, when are you going to help me?” I said, “I have confidence that if you give yourself time you’ll be able to figure it out on your own.” When I put him to bed that night he said, “I did all my homework myself. I love you, Daddy.”

The next night he told me he wanted to talk something over with me. I said, “What is it?”

He said, “From now on, Daddy, I want to be my own man. Okay?”

I said, “It’s okay with me.”

Later on I told him, “Bedtime, Robby. Get into your pajamas and make sure you brush your teeth.”

“I know that, Daddy,” he said. “Remember, I’m my own man now!”