Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.Proverbs 3:5 NIV
One of the keywords we hear in education – especially in the field of early childhood – is the word autonomy. Young children from as early as infants are taught to hold their own bottles, eat with their hands, and use a spoon or fork. By 18 months, toddlers start to learn to dress themselves (with minimal assistance) and prepare their mats for nap (again with minimal assistance), and by 5 years old they are completely autonomous. Yes, I can see how this can be beneficial to working parents, as it helps them get their children out the door with minimal stress and effort. What most parents don’t realize is that early autonomy in young children leads to other consequences as they get older. One of them is asking for help.
As I was tidying up my daughters bed this morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the way she made it. Her duvet carelessly thrown over her bed to hide her messy sheets and pajama underneath. Yes, I tidied it up. As a mom, I really don’t mind taking the extra time to do little “extra” things for my children. I get a sense of joy in doing it. There is something instinctive in me about taking care of their needs, just as it is painful to for me to hold back and watch as they “fall” and encourage them to get “back up”.
The mom in me loves to guide and nurture them, and I often imagine in my mind eyes the many times Jesus stepped in to take care of me. I had a replay of this image in my mind while praying the other night – of our Lord Jesus leading me back into his herd.
Early childhood education has changed over the last 10 years, shifting back and forth between nurture and nature. Coming from a Chinese cultural and Evangelical background, I grew up with a stay at home mom who took care of our needs. It was only when we were all grown up that she went into the workforce. As parents, my husband and I made a conscious decision to always have one parent at home. This meant an adjustment to our life style. My husband worked the night shift and I worked during the day. This way our children would always have a parent at home. Our children were nurtured for a longer period of time. This was something unheard of in western culture, where children as young as a few months go to daycare, and keywords like autonomy and independence become their mantra.
What sparked my long spew today?
This morning (6:30 am), I looked around for spare change because we had not renewed Aleeza’s bus pass (special thank you to my 18 year old son who keeps a jar of change in his room). As she is in school 2 or 3 days a week, along with online school on days she is at home, we forgot to renew her bus pass. Normally she is driven to school, and it is either her dad or brother who picks her up. Today was one of those days when neither of them were free to pick her up (Covid – 19 and the changing school schedule) from school.
Searching for spare change (sheesh who uses cash in a cashless society of online shopping or swiping cards) – I told her to explain to the bus driver that we (her parents) forgot to load her bus pass. To my surprise she said, “don’t worry mom, I’m gonna lie.” “Huh?” I said, “What are you gonna lie about? Just tell the driver your parents forgot to load up your card!” I also gave her spare change in case the driver refuses to let her on the bus.
To my shock, my daughter refused the money and said, “Don’t worry I am good at lying.”
“What? Are you telling me you lie to us, your parents?”
“No”, she says.
“Who do you lie to?”
“Why do you lie to your teachers?”
“Mom, do you think my teachers will be able to accept it if I am honest and tell them I don’t like whatever they are saying”
“Mom, if I tell them what I think about a story they’ve read, or if I give my honest opinion, I will have a harder time, and it will reflect on my grade.”
“Wow”, I thought to myself.
Well, needless to say I am a bit flabbergasted and then remember a similar conversation with my son about teachers and courses he had taken in the past. At the time he was concerned about having thoughts or ideas contrary to his teachers in High School. He said that voicing his opinions can lead to negative consequences.
This reminds me about my own experience as a graduate student in a Wittgenstein Seminar.
I will never forget my professor throwing my paper back at me. It’s ironic as I think about it, as we all sat around a circular table – to promote the idea we were equal thinkers. I’ll never forget the shock on my classmates face as I ducked my head in embarrassment to avoid getting hit by my paper. “I cannot grade this”, bellowed my professor.
I thought I had written a brilliant Greek play – a dialogue between Plato and Wittgenstein – a philosophical discussion about language. I was quite proud of this play, as I had done a lot of research. Also as a Fine Arts graduate student, I wanted to present the topic creatively, but as it was contrary to what was acceptable in Philosophical discourse, I go a bit fat 0 (marked “ungradable”). I accepted the 0.
What is my point?
I feel that from as young as early childhood, teaching autonomy is counter productive. I personally feel it leads to a generation of young adults who are afraid to express or think critically so that they can fit into status quo. By the time our children go through daycare, elementary, high school and higher learning (they have not only been institutionalized), their survival instincts kick in – which often means avoiding going against the flow to succeed.
I am glad I had my 6:30 discussion with my daughter. First, I reminded her not to lie, and to tell the bus driver the truth. Worse case scenario – pay for your bus fare. The other thing I was able to do was direct her towards asking Jesus for help. I also discovered she was feeling stressed about an upcoming oral presentation. She has fear of being ridiculed by the “mean girls” in her class. This gave me ample opportunity to share with her and to tell her to talk to Jesus, and to ask Him for the confidence and strength.
Asking for help is something I would like to hear from my children. It creates a bond between us, of me, the mother who cares and willing to meet their needs. Just as we let Jesus into our hearts and we can talk to him and ask of him to meet our needs.
I think by focusing on autonomy and independence in young children, we unconsciously start a chain reaction of negative consequences. They learn to be self sufficient, and don’t ask for help. They think they can do it on their own. It also alienates the “other”. To survive, they may resort to telling little white lies instead of voicing their own opinions. They feel a false sense of security. In turn I believe telling “white lie” will inevitably snowball into one “big lie”. It is better to tell the truth and deal with the consequences.
It also means for my husband and I to take the time to talk, listen and have meaningful conversations with our children. This also means we need to be calm and able to discuss with our children contents which we may find uncomfortable.
As a parent, I am thankful I can guide my children to research and examine the whole, and above all – think critically – before drawing a conclusion. As long as we can share with them our human vulnerability, I believe we can share with them how Jesus is our steadfast rock when we feel challenged and stress. Autonomy means being able to do things alone and makes the idea of being needy a negative, when in fact being or feeling needy is very much a part of being human.
It is in our neediness that we can fall upon our knees and ask for God’s help. By teaching children to be autonomous and independent is denying an important part of being human…the need to nurture.
My dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.Song of Solomon 2:14
Thank you for reading – it is my personal viewpoint based on experience as an early childhood educator and mother.