My daughter is two and she often says “no, me, myself!”
My daughter often wants to do the things her way. When it is in any way possible, I let her. This results in her having a summer hat in the middle of winter, having shoes put in a wrong way or even carrying sweets from the store because she “bought” them (otherwise I am so concerned about too much sugar in children’s mouth). When I cannot let her do what she wants she, of course, objects and screams “no!” or “me, myself!” It takes a lot of energy to remain calm and not to give in.
There are so many situations where the best option is letting kids be autonomous. Kids can dress themselves – let them! Kids go to the toilet themselves – let them. Kids want to help you cook – let them!
A psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson who wrote about the stages of childhood talks about autonomous will that starts to manifest during the second year of child’s life. The child, although still very dependent on her parents, starts noticing that she can be autonomous. This, of course, gives her a lot of joy. This is not some child’s naughtiness – it is an important need. Only by being able to be autonomous and having the will to be themselves children can successfully move to other, higher, developmental stages.
Children develop in a less healthy way when they do not have possibilities to express their autonomy. According to Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori who emphasized the need of toddlers for autonomy, parents hinder children’s development instead of helping when they do something for children who can do it themselves. Imagine a child who almost figured out all the puzzle and only one piece is missing. When her parent happily puts this last piece, a child becomes angry and shouts that “You ruined everything!” Indeed, this parent ruined a possibility for a child to experience his strength that he can finish the task, that he is capable. For a child the process is more important than the result and doing it herself has much more meaning. When parents do not let their toddlers experience autonomy, it may happen that as teenagers their children still ask their parents do everything for them – clean the house, do the shopping, and would not be eager to decide and do something themselves.
Even when a child refuses to do an essential task, we can give her at least some autonomy. When a child does not want to put on clothes, we can give a choice: which trousers do you want to put on – blue or yellow? Do you want to dress up now or in 5 minutes?
It is a delight to see how independent my daughter becomes and is able to do certain things. She cleans the floor when accidentally spills the water. She puts on some of the clothes. Still, I feel the urge to interfere to make things go faster or better. We do not have to spend 15 min for dressing up, do we? The floor must be really clean, so I want to help.
And then there are situations in which it is time to set limits and rules instead of offering autonomy. These situations usually concern children’s safety, healthiness or our own sanity. “I understand that you do not want to sit in a car seat, but you must.” “If you do not brush your teeth now, we are not going to have enough time for reading a book.” “I am not going to let you hit me, it hurts.”
I know the importance of setting limits and boundaries and I sometimes experience a temptation to just give in into my daughter’s demands. I guess nothing will happen if she does not brush her teeth once. Or if she does not go to sleep on time. Again, I know how important it is to set limits and to create boundaries and do it consistently, as a parenting teacher Janet Lansbury repeatedly emphasizes.
The wisdom is to distinguish between the situations where children’s autonomy needs to be fostered and those where limits should be set.
Eric H. Erikson. Identity. Youth and Crisis. 1968
E. M. Standing. Maria Montessori. Her life and work. 1998
Janet Lansbury. No Bad Kids. Toddler Discipline without Shame. 2014