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Heffner column: Subject to their own laws

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Herald-Journal

What do we mean by autonomy? The dictionary defines autonomy as being “self-governing, independent.” In biology, it means to exist as an “independent organism and not as a mere form or state of development as an organism.” As parents, much of the time we are dealing with our children in a “state of development,” looking toward the time they will become “independent organisms.”

Autonomy actually means more than independence in the sense of being able to take care of yourself physically. Self-governing implies being able to take responsibility for yourself and for your own behavior. The dictionary definition includes the phrase, “subject to its own laws.” While this is intended as a reference to independent nations, it is striking how well this could be applied to children, particularly at certain points in their development.

Two-year-old’s, often seem all at once to have arrived at a point of asserting their own likes and dislikes, their own ideas of what they want to do and don’t want to do, and their disinterest in their parent’s agenda. In short, they have decided they should be subject to their own laws, not their parents’ wishes.

This behavior is the behavior of emerging autonomy. All the children’s endowments, both innate and acquired through experience, have come together to produce the assertion of self that often is expressed as defiance of parents. As the butt of such expression - while struggling with the difficulties caused in simple day-to-day routines by our children’s resistance to our wishes and refusal to cooperate - we may see this as negative behavior to be nipped in the bud.

Actually, there is a positive side to this emerging autonomy. Children’s increasing language skills, perception, memory, intelligence and mobility are all operating to help them gain mastery of their environment. There is a push/pull aspect to development. The push comes from within the child - from inner longings that produce a thrust toward development. The pull comes from parents and others whose job it is to pull the child forward and upward.

An important part of growing up is finding a balance between one’s own desires and the need to respond to the expectations of parents and then others. In this process children test out their own voices and assert their own wills. Children talk back in the process of learning to speak up.

As parents, our task is to help our children express themselves, to support their emerging autonomy, yet learn to operate within parental and social boundaries. This task can be difficult with adolescents as it is with two-year-old’s, as self-assertion often takes the form of defiance. Hopefully, however, adolescents have begun to internalize parental and social values in the process of establishing their own identity.

Peer pressure plays a larger role as a factor in adolescent behavior with social implications apparent in concerns about the use of drugs, alcohol and teenage pregnancies. Now the pandemic has put a new focus on social behavior that affects others as well as oneself. Parents have described a situation of social interaction in small numbers beginning to be permitted in which their teenager wore a mask while others did not. Their child was struggling with this as the parents had explained to her that taking risks was putting not only herself but them at risk.

The conflict was not only between the different standards of behavior of the children but also of the parents involved. It is a measure of the competing pressures at work in resolving the conflict between one’s own desires and consideration of others.

Self-governing is a challenge.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.