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Autonomy and Agency

Years ago, I read an article titled – What Parents Want for Their Children. It was a large sample of families. Interestingly, families of all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds wanted the same #1 thing. And that was to raise children who were responsible. Children who grow into adults with a solid sense of self-responsibility.

What is personal -agency, and how does autonomy invigorate it?

In the Neuroscience of free will, Scientist Benjamin Libet was among the first to study what he called “phenomenal will.” I love that term. It makes me think of a passionate and clever toddler just beginning to express this force of will onto their environment. Without a predetermined intention or the ability to control the self, the toddler, without hesitation, takes action. Often with wild abandon, sometimes joyous and jubilant, others raucous and rageful, the toddler bursts forth with an irrepressible will force that is absolutely phenomenal.

Libet concluded that – “Brain activity predicts the action before one even has conscious awareness of his or her intention to act upon that action.” This offers more evidence that toddlers deserve a break. They are learning so much through this experimental and highly improvisational process. Through early and often impulsive actions, without self-awareness, the child has no idea how his actions will turn out or be perceived by the adults in charge. However, over time, through the natural consequences of this trial and error, our children will have experiences of their own doing that can develop into personal agency. That is – if we let them. If we let them try and if we let them feel the failure of their errors. We don’t have to add anything. No shaming. No blaming. No over-the-top reaction unless, of course, they scare the shit out of us, and that will happen, and we will react. Seeing our humanness is part of their learning agency. Most of the time, we must reflect accurately and honestly on what we saw and heard. – WOW, you did that. And then ___ and ___happened. Then, we support them through the natural feelings that arise when our actions offer negative results. We let them fully apprehend the disappointment, the sadness, the anger, the frustration – ALL of it. And we let them fully embody their joy when things go well.

Our children must embody autonomy to fully develop agency. The first decade of their lives is soley devoted to play. And their play offers the best opportunities to learn both autonomy and agency. Let them fully apprehend their play and everything that play teaches them.

Here is an example. My 3-year-old son was playing in the park, and off in the distance, he saw a little girl running across the open field. Before I could stop him, he bolted to intercept her with a full-body tackle.  He was a solid three years old, and the impact was loud and disturbing. They both flew and landed on the ground. Of course, she started crying loudly, and her father ran over and was understandably very upset. He turned to my son, raised his voice, and let him have it. And I let the father let my son have it. I got down on my son’s level and put my arm around him. I felt him lean against me. When the father paused, I quietly said – You ran and pushed her over. You hit her with your body hard. Her daddy is very upset with you. She is crying. Let’s see if she is hurt. She is hugging her dad.  That was that. The dad calmed down, and we all took a deep breath and checked in again with his daughter. She was ok. I checked in with my son, and he was visibly surprised at his result on all of us that day. He brought it up daily and talked about it for over two weeks. – – Park. I pushed her. She fell. She cried. The daddy yelled. – – Over and over, he processed the incident every day. I listened and agreed. Yes, you pushed her over. She cried. He yelled. He was scared and angry. 

That day, he learned the power of his running tackle. He never did it again. Well, he did in sports and rough and tumble playtime with his friends. His interest that day led to many sports activities later in childhood. At 22, he continues. He studies martial arts and practices JuJitsu. As I write, he is surfing in El Salvador on spring break. Trusting him in picking the safest spot to do a semi-dangerous thing carefully feels good.

I liked the following definitions and think these are qualities of people who have “personal agency” and understand self-responsibility—the kind of people I wanted to send into this world.

An individual’s ability to control their own behaviours and reactions to circumstances beyond their control, even if their actions are limited by someone or something else.

Personal agency can include our beliefs, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, preferences, choices, values, attitude, behaviour and anything which is going on within our minds and what we do with our bodies.

Being held responsible for our own actions and for their effects on others determines our moral sense and conduct which informs our ability to empathize with others.

This takes years to develop. But as all development unfolds, slowly, over time, so does this growing sense of agency. As with resilience, development invigorates the learning opportunities for personal agency.

Newborn babies and the developing infant:

Our babies cry, and we respond with love and meet their needs; we are consistent in our responsiveness. Over time, they learn that they are an essential part of our world. They matter. And their communications make a difference in their world. As they start to roll and creep and crawl, they reach and grab and pull items to their mouths. They begin to interact with objects and play deepens as they learn from their play. They are seeking, grasping, and satisfying the rising of desires within.

Beginning toddlers and accomplished toddlers:

Toddlers integrate the above learning into their daily lives, making their impact stronger and louder. As gross motor skills take off, they crawl, stand, walk, and run. Their seeking develops into exploration, and their curiosity evolves into a deepening creativity. As they are learning expressive language, we make an effort to understand them. They struggle to communicate and become frustrated. We support them in their struggle. We continually show them that what they say, think, and feel matters to us. Gross motor has a ton of natural opportunities for developing agency. They reach, grasp, and throw. Through this highly kinetic and sometimes frenetic cause and effect of their physicality, they become great problem solvers. They are sometimes creating problems to solve. All the while, they are deepening their understanding of relationships and relational lessons. The child in perpetual wonder is wondering – What gets their attention? What makes them smile and laugh? What angers? What scares them? What scares me? Children love playing with fear. They play with anger. They turn anything and everything into play – if we can allow that.

Transition from child to young adult:

Throughout early childhood, adolescence, teen years, and into young adulthood, the child’s life offers thousands of opportunities to learn the lessons that will develop into a sense of agency. Goal setting. Disagreements with peers and adults. Difficult conversations. Developing an internal locus of control – “Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces, have control over the outcome of events in their lives.” All of these are crucial to their resilience.

And when they leave the nest, their personal agency will influence their resilience.

Agency has been linked to the following qualities in a person.

Intrinsic motivation, independent and critical thinking, confidence, authenticity,

well-being, and overall life satisfaction.

How do we foster this learning in our growing children?

  • See them: Watch with curious eyes and see what they see. Notice what they notice.
  • Hear them: Learn the skills of active listening. Use these skills with your children. Let them observe us using these skills with others. Hear them fully – especially when we disagree with them.
  • Follow them: Follow their interests and enrich their lives with what they are drawn to and what turns them on. Then, get interested in their interests.
  • Do less. BE more. Please slow down and become present with them without doing.
  • Turn off devices. Turn off computers, phones, TV, everything—model long sustained periods of not looking into screens.
  • Make art.  Any art. Dance, garden, paint, draw, make music, and cook with your children.
  • Make a mess and allow messiness. Life is messy, and art is messy. Make art with mud. Do it on an outside wall, then let them clean it with a hose.
  • Get in nature. Play in water. Play in mud. Play in the rain. Play in the snow.
  • Play: Offer all kinds of play. Autonomous play. Unsupervised play. Play with children. Play with adults. Let them observe your play and playfulness.
  • Let them do dangerous things. YES. Learning how to do dangerous things carefully is essential. Teach them to build a fire, throw heavy objects, and play with sharp things. Let them climb on rocks and fall and skin their knees.
  • Let them do nothing.  Let them have downtime—unstructured, open-ended, do-nothing time. Let them go so deep into this time that they become bored. Some seeds of creativity can only sprout in the compost of boredom.
  • Let them have complete control of their play. Once we make it safe – let them direct it, and leave them to it.
  • Observe more – entertain less.
  • Listen more – say less.
  • Ask fewer questions – I’m still working on this one.
  • Let them make decisions – This is more than making choices. This is making a decision, living it, and experiencing the consequences of their decision: the good, the bad, and the ugly parts.
  • Let them make mistakes.  Then, in a lighthearted moment, let them know we all make them; it is part of learning. Share some of your most epic failures with them when they are older.
  • Give them time alone. This is the only way to learn the gifts of solitude and the discomfort of isolation. Here is one thing we want for sure – we want children who abhor isolation. We do not want them to become comfortable in the vacuum of isolation – this leads me to my closing points. Isolation is taking down the current generation of teens and young adults. It is linked to social media.
  • Phones and devices isolate us from others. We thought it connected us. It doesn’t. We have not evolved enough to make human connections through a screen and typing in a little square box on that screen. Social media is not relational. Agency is learned in relationship to the world, objects in the world, and relationships with real humans, face-to-face in the real world.
  • Prolong the phone and internet access for as long as possible. This will be hard. This will be an essential boundary and loving limit. Give them a phone to communicate with family and friends but no internet access. You will likely become – “The worst parent in the world.” Let that be music to your ears.
  • Let them have all of their feelings about all of the above. The joy and the horror of all of the above.

Differentiate: Let them have their own experience with whatever they are experiencing.

Personal agency is learned incrementally through life experience. We want them to mature out of the “phenomenal will” of toddlerhood. One hallmark of immaturity is someone who’s “self will” runs riot in the world. Yikes! To mature into a responsible person, a sense of “personal -agency” and “self-responsibility” must be at the core. One thing we can’t give our children is “life experience.”  We can expose them to many experiences but can never choose how the child will internalize them.  Letting them have their internal response to life is a gift we will be forced to allow when they leave home. Start early. Do it often. And build that muscle. It helps us develop an essential muscle in ourselves – the muscle of letting go.

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