Speaking on: Stage Two of emotional development autonomy vs. shame and doubt
by Rob Coombs
Apr 15, 2012 | 1993 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Walking to the barn with my absolutely adorable grandson, I find myself concerned that he might trip and fall. After all, he’s only 18 months old and every step reminds me that he is still a toddler.

Every step is deliberate. He truly toddles from one foot to the other. I think he needs my help and I offer my hand. He rejects my offer. Now he has quickened his step. Excitement has overtaken him. He laughs, delighted in his newly found abilities. He pushes himself to go even faster.

My anxiety rises. And then, the inevitable happens. He falls face first. Luckily, it is early morning and still cool outside. He is bundled up pretty well and this cushions his fall. He lies on the concrete for half a second and then works on getting up, regaining his balance, and then he is off again. He is delighted with himself. I feel his joy in knowing that he has just taken care of himself. He walked, ran, fell and got up again. At least in this moment, he didn’t need his GrandRob to take care of him. That’s exciting.

Such experiences are really a powerful realization of emerging autonomy. “I can do it myself” communicates self-sufficiency and independence. By allowing appropriate freedom for a child of this age to do things for himself, you, in effect, fuel this emerging sense of autonomy, thus encouraging feelings of self worth and power.

Defined, autonomy is the ability to remain a separate self. Lived, it is the ability to be a person who has a healthy sense of self (in other words knows himself) and second is able to hold on to that sense of self in relationships with others. This is far from easy to achieve. The pressure to conform to the expectations of others is always present. It’s easy to be constantly reacting to the world around us and lose not only who we are but also what we really want out of life for ourselves.

This is why it is so important that we develop this emotional capacity early in life. According to Erik Erikson, the appropriate stage of development to accomplish this is between the ages of two and four. Children either enhance their sense of autonomy or bring their feelings of doubt and shame to the forefront.

If a child is permitted to make decisions that are appropriate for him to make, he will develop a healthy sense of being able to take responsibility and make decisions. If parents are overprotective or overly permissive, the child is likely to hold feelings of doubt and shame about self.

The best way to encourage autonomy is to give your child choice. This, too, will greatly minimize your child’s need to constantly say no. Please understand that saying no at this age is reflective of the child’s growing autonomy. Translated, this means: “You and I are different. I am me and you are you.” This striving for autonomy is so powerful that children all over the world say “no” at this stage in process of separating from their parents.

The choice of whether or not to hold your hand is only one example of choice. There are many other opportunities to facilitate choice. For example, in the kitchen there is a natural desire to protect the child from numerous dangers such as a hot stove, glass, and knives.

The temptation is to be constantly saying no to your child which unintentionally produces feelings of shame and doubt. This, too, is confusing to your child as there is a natural desire to explore plus a yearning to be wherever you are.

To affirm the needs of your child, you might dedicate a lower cabinet to the child. Fill the cabinet with tupperware, pots, and pans. Whenever your child ventures to another cabinet, simply pick him and tell him, “This is your cabinet.”

Soon your child will delight in knowing that he has a special place just for him. Although you are really saying no to all other cabinets, the child is content in knowing that he has his own special place. Another example, by the age of three your child may really want to dress himself.

For some parents, this becomes a power struggle which unfortunately encourages feelings of shame and doubt.

Why not lower the bar in the closet and let your child choose? If matching outfits are important to you, simply hang the matching tops and bottoms on the same hanger. (Out of season clothes, can be stored elsewhere.)

Believe me. Your child will be thrilled with the power of choice. In turn, you will experience growing confidence that your child’s autonomy is being affirmed.