Encouraging exploration gives child a sense of autonomy

WHEN a child hits toddlerhood, most parents realise this when a child starts to say "no".

This is a very exciting and important stage for any child because this is when they have first started to realise that they are separate from their parents.

Before this, many toddlers see themselves as being one and the same thing as their care providers.

However these care providers aren't always very good at fulfilling these whims as and when the infant demands it, and the child will usually express this by saying things like "waaaaaaah!", loudly and clearly.

So realising that they have a power that is separate to their carers, they start to discover just what this power looks like.

They start to explore in a very active way, fulfilling their senses by touching and tasting all sorts of things like toys and spiderwebs, and household pets.

The toddler will also start to explore their social environment as well, seeing how much they can get away with, and discovering that certain behaviours get particular reactions from those around them.

It is amazing how well toddlers seem to be able to train their parents.

All of this behaviour from the toddler is leading towards developing a sense of autonomy; the belief that they have the power to do things by themselves.

It is the first noticeable exercise of decision making.

So what happens to the amazing developing toddler when they exercise this power and become shamed for doing so?

When the response from a parent, even a protective one, means that the toddler starts to feel that they are wrong for doing what they did.

At this delicate stage, it is a challenging task for a toddler to differentiate between "what I am doing is wrong", to "I am wrong for doing it".

A highly controlling parent may block the toddler from this physical, sensory, social and emotional exploration phase, leading to the child starting to doubt their ability to make decisions for themselves.

Rather than facilitating the toddler to explore, they may block the toddler.

It is here that we have the origins of an amazing concept called willpower.

Willpower is the ability to determine one's own destiny, and to face the consequences of our own decisions, even the painful ones.

A toddler who is continually frustrated will become wilful, or through sheer force of will, regardless of the consequences will push to gain whatever it is that they want in the moment, regardless of the consequences.

A toddler who sees that they can explore and take quality risks will develop instead to be willing, or able to make clean and clear decisions for their life.

Of course these very sophisticated concepts around willpower only really reveal themselves later on in life, often in adulthood.

Have a look at the adults around you.

Do you know anyone who is wilful and will just want to do whatever they want whenever they want, regardless of the consequences just to get their emotional needs of the moment met?

What about an adult who is able to make good decisions quickly, determine the risks and then take action. Such a person is willing.

Now take a look at yourself.

What happens to your sense of trust in yourself when you have to make a choice, when there are obstacles in your way?

Do you become wilful or willing?

It is essential that parents put healthy boundaries around children.

Yet a level of awareness of the crucial nature of this developmental phase is required, for the toddler to be able to develop a sense of autonomy and willpower, and to overcome the challenges of our sense of shame and doubt.

Paul Stewart is a Personal Coach with Compassion Coaching, and also supports the inSight Men's Circle and Teen Tribe programs run through Hopelink 4979 3626.

Topics:  gladstone man alive opinion parenting paul stewart toddler

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