Fostering Autonomy, Independence, and Self-Determination

Jillian Enright

Children Are Cute, But They’re Not Puppies

Nor are they pigeons, rats, or any other animal to be “trained”

Enough with this behaviourism crap already. Enough.

I can teach a rat to press a lever to earn pellets.

I can teach a pigeon to peck at a light for seeds.

I can teach my dog to sit for treats.

I have extensive training in positive reinforcement because I was a certified dog trainer for 11 years.

I absolutely will not. Ever. Use this approach with children.

Why?

Why is that? I’m so glad you asked! There are many reasons, but I’ll try to keep this straightforward and to the point.

All brains were not created equal

Human brains differ in one significant way from the brains of other animals: we have a much more developed Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).

The PFC is the most evolved part of the human brain and is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and self control.

Humans have the ability to use reason, logic, and morals to guide our behaviours and help us make decisions. We aren’t simply ruled by rewards and consequences like animals whose behaviours are more reflexive than ours due to their neurobiology.

Dogs, and other animals, have been shown to exhibit traits of empathy and prosocial helping, so even canines are more than the sum of their reflexes.

Autonomy and self determination

Autonomy is defined as a state of independence and self-determination in an individual, a group, or a society.

“When they feel forced, kids resist even things that are helpful to them in order to gain a sense of control.” — (Stixrud & Johnson, 2019)

According to self-determination theory, the experience of acting from choice, rather than feeling pressured to act, is considered a fundamental psychological need that predicts well-being.

It’s been well-established in scientific literature that one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s well being. More recent research is highlighting the importance of autonomy and self-determination when developing social skills and emotion regulation skills.

I want my son learn and practice the skills of decision-making and taking responsibility for his actions. These are much more important to me than blind obedience.

I’d rather teach skills than gain compliance

As I stated in another article, behaviour management is primarily about controlling the behaviour of children in an attempt to make the adults’ lives easier. While they may get the result the adult intended, they don’t actually teach the child any new skills.

“Behaviour management is about the adults” — Dr. Lori Desautels

For example, if I want my son to brush his teeth every day (I do), I could create a sticker chart and give him a sticker every time he brushes his teeth. Once he has earned 7 stickers, he gets a prize. That might work, but what has he learned? I do the thing, I get the thing.

What I’ve done instead is taught my son about the benefits of good dental hygiene, the risks of not brushing our teeth, and expressed to him that I care about his health, and want to ensure he takes good care of himself and his body.

Is it a perfect system? No, nor are adults perfect. I have absolutely gone to bed while exhausted and forgotten to brush my teeth. The upside is that now my son knows why I care whether he brushes his teeth, and when he’s older, he’ll understand why it’s important he continue doing so.

I don’t want to steamroll over children

Oftentimes when we are caught up in gaining compliance, or using rewards and punishment to “teach” a child to do what we want, we become overly focused on the result and lose sight of the human being in front of us.

I remember a time when my son was about 3 years old and I had arrived to pick him up at daycare. He had apparently hit another child over some disagreement, probably over who got to play with a particular toy they both wanted.

“It’s not how we’re going to stop the behaviour, but how we’re going to support the kid.” — Dr. Jody Carrington

The daycare worker was insisting that he sit down so she could talk to him about his behaviour and have him apologize (did I mention he was all of 3 years old?). I can’t remember the exact details, but it turned out he had a soiled diaper and needed a change.

He wasn’t listening and sitting down when asked because he didn’t want to sit in his own poop! I mean, can anyone really blame him?

He was highly communicative for a 3 year old, but he still didn’t have the skills to explain, “excuse me, miss, I’d be happy to comply with your demand, just as soon as I will not be required to sit in my own filth. I would greatly appreciate provision of a clean diaper, if you don’t mind. Thank you kindly for your assistance and understanding.”

I try to put on my listening ears

This steamrolling happens to children of all ages all the time, especially those who struggle with communicating their needs and emotions. An adult is pushing the child to follow instructions and do what they’re told, meanwhile the child is uncomfortable or scared, but unable to articulate their experience.

Children may also be unable, or unwilling, to articulate their experience if we haven’t given them a safe environment to do so, and quite frankly, if we haven’t shut up for long enough to let them talk.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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Related Stories

The “Gold Standard” for Autistic Children

The Perils of Punishment Story Series

Demanding Blind Obedience is Dangerous

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References

Carrington, J. (2020). Kids These Days: A game plan for (re)connecting with those we teach, lead, and love. IMPress Books.

Desautels, L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Friedman, N.P., & Robbins, T.W. (2021). The role of prefrontal cortex in cognitive control and executive function. Neuropsychopharmacology. doi:10.1038/s41386–021–01132–0

Kohn, A. (2018). Punished by Rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.

Kurdi, V., Joussemet, M. and Mageau, G.A. (2021), “A Self-determination Theory Perspective on Social and Emotional Learning”, Yoder, N. and Skoog-Hoffman, A. (Ed.) Motivating the SEL Field Forward Through Equity (Advances in Motivation and Achievement, Vol. 21), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 61–78. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0749-742320210000021005

Leotti, L. A., Iyengar, S. S., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). Born to choose: the origins and value of the need for control. Trends in cognitive sciences, 14(10), 457–463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.08.001

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860

Sanford, E.M., Burt, E.R. & Meyers-Manor, J.E. (2018). Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs. Learning & Behaviour 46, 374–386. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-018-0332-3

Stixrud, W. & Johnson, N. (2019). The Self-Driven Child: The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives. Penguin Books.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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