Let's talk about ... autonomy
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
Autonomy is considered one of three fundamental human psychological needs within Self Determination Theory, alongside competence and relatedness. Autonomy is a person's ability to act on his/her own values and interests; it equates to self governance and self legislation.
Having autonomy leads to people being happier, more successful, have better social functioning, better mental health, developing a strong sense of personal responsibility and having an internal locus of control. Autonomy is about having control and choice in your life, being able to make informed decisions, taking responsibility for your decisions and actions and feeling free and willing. Having autonomy means you are willing an able to listen to someone non-defensively and modify your views to incorporate new information.
When a person lacks autonomy their wellbeing and self esteem suffers. People who have low levels of autonomy feel that they are controlled by what others do, think and feel, and they change and mould themselves accordingly to appease others. They develop a victim mentality. They have difficulty making decisions, taking action based on their internal moral compass/beliefs, taking independent action and responsibility for their actions. Lack of autonomy and low self esteem can cause stress, addiction (Gabor Mate's work on the traumatising impact of separation from self is well worth exploring), communication difficulties, increased levels of domestic violence, abuse, worry, anxiety, guilt and anger.
Whilst I had studied, and was aware of, the importance of autonomy from my studies into psychology; it was only when I had my own children that I really understood. Both my children are autistic with a variant called Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). PDA can be viewed as the need for high levels of autonomy in order to feel safe in the world. For PDA children, autonomy can be viewed as a survival need as opposed to a need to create wellbeing. This meant that, in order to support my children, I really needed to understand where their autonomy was being compromised. Two significant areas I identified were: parenting and schooling. It was this realisation that caused me to really look at my parenting and their education, challenge the assumptions that underpinned them and research different paradigms for each.
Let's have a little look at parenting. I was parented in a tough love, reasonably authoritarian parenting model and I automatically adopted this for my children. This traditional/mainstream model has a focus on the control of children. It utilises punishments and/or rewards, to select and control behaviour. The roots of this are based heavily in Behaviourism. This view of parent as "controller" who has all the power and dictates what happens to a child and when, does not allow much space for autonomy. The more authoritarian the parent, the less autonomy children have. The use of punishments rarely allows a child to internalise a desired behaviour. If it does, it is driven by fear of a punishment rather than an internal alignment with a moral value. Punishment is much more likely to result in children focusing on "how unfair it is" and "not getting caught" in future, and also results in damage to the connection with the parent/caregiver. The use of rewards (whilst they can appear to work in the short term) actually damage long term motivation to engage in those very behaviours we are wishing to promote. Alfie Kohn's work unpicks this is in detail; his book "Punished By Rewards" is a great read, as is "Unconditional Parenting".
Now taking a little look at autonomy and schooling. Schooling is entirely based on the control and compliance of children. It is a paradigm in which children have almost no autonomy. Children are told what to wear, how to wear it and in some cases how even to wear their hair. They are told what to do and when to do it; how and when to sit, listen, eat, drink, work, play, toilet. They are controlled as to what to learn, how to learn, when to learn it, to what level and to what pace of progression with no recourse at all to their individual preferences, learning styles, interests or needs. All this is enforced by an explicit punishment and rewards system, of which public shaming plays a role. Go into any primary classroom to see "Consequence ladders", "red/green cards", names on boards etc. Examining these parenting and educational paradigms really highlighted that they are antithetical to allowing the human psychological need of autonomy.
When looking at these with regard to my children it became apparent that something very different was needed. My direct experience of my mainstream parenting model was self evidently failing based on the strife and stress in our household. My research into human needs, autism and specifically PDA, confirmed that I needed something different. The central belief I started with was garnered from an autism course (but which applies to all behaviour be it in children or adults). This was that "all behaviour is a form of communication". With this as my base, I sort to understand the communication behind the behaviours. I centralised meeting the needs of the child I had in front of me; I made connection and respect my go to responses - I have never looked back. Years later, I discovered that what I was instinctively doing tied into the concepts of attachment, gentle, respectful and consensual parenting models.
Three years of schooling showed me that this was not going to work; so home education was where we headed. Home education allows much greater flexibility to meet the needs of your child, way beyond a schooling paradigm. I researched and trialled a number of alternative learning models and Self Directed Education (SDE) - or Unschooling as it tends to be known in Home Education - offered what we needed, and aligned with my parenting tenets of connection and respect. SDE is entirely based around autonomy. Now, some people worry this may create selfish children, but this has not been my experience. SDE is rooted in a deep understanding, connection and respect to each other, as well as to the self. Relationships are central. When children trust that their needs will be met, their desire to grab and hold selfishly wanes. Scarcity, and lack of needs being met, drives selfishness.
Within SDE, parents are cast in the role of guides, mentors, facilitators and/or supporters and often serve as a model for development of all areas of leaning. They are not cast in the role of controllers or teachers who impose knowledge onto a child. Parents offer guidance and support in non-judgemental ways, and they encourage their children without overlaying their own personal expectations and pressures.
Learning is directed by a child's passions, interests and strengths with intrinsic motivation being the driver. Children are encouraged to understand themselves, their needs, their passions, their strengths, their motivators, their interests, beliefs and values. Problem solving, collaborating and creating solutions (where everyone's needs are met) are core skills in SDE. Self awareness, self evaluation and each person's unique personal development journey are key. It requires a whole new way of understanding learning, and it is parents that have the hardest job in unpicking all old conditioning about how children learn and develop.
Allowing my children autonomy over their lives has completely positively changed our lives. We are more connected, happy, healthy, harmonious and we are always seeking to meet all our needs. All of our physical, mental, social and emotional lives have improved for the better; however has not been an overnight "fix". It has taken time, reflection, support and dedication to fully embrace and live by it in order for us to thrive; and it is an ongoing process as we all grow and change.
There was however, an overwhelming realisation as part of my journey. I had become aware of the importance of autonomy for humans because my own children needed it as a survival need, rather than a thriving need. However, I also realised just now important autonomy was for healthy development for all children (well all humans actually) and just how much mainstream parenting and schooling paradigms severely limited children's autonomy. My motivation for setting up Connect and Respect was to allow a spotlight to be shed on these areas, and to open up thinking about alternatives. How we parent and educate our children has enormous ramifications not only for the lives of our children, but the societies they go on to create. I'm personally looking forward to a future where connection and respect are central tenets to the human way of being.
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