Saturday, September 25, 2010

I Do It Myself!

Several years ago, I was teaching a group of three and four year olds. It was time to go outside, and we were encouraging the children to put on their own coats to the best of their ability. Most of the children hurried around us, swinging coats on haphazardly or trying to twist arms into their appropriate places. Many did the "coat flip" (I'll describe later) that they had been taught to do at preschool--a really easy, successful way for a child to put on his or her own coat. As the hallway cleared, there was one boy left standing....with his arms stuck straight out, like an airplane. When I asked him what he was doing, he responded to me as if his actions were the most natural in the world: "I'm waiting for you to put my coat on."

Children are faced with a variety of tasks to accomplish each day. Some of these tasks are easier than others. Each child is different, and based on his or her strengths and abilities, s/he may or may not be able to accomplish each task without help. But in general, we tend to encourage children to be independent in our society. We want children to learn to do things for themselves, to feel good about what they do.

This stage of development, as identified by theorist Erik Erikson is known as autonomy vs. shame and doubt. Most of us are familiar with two-year olds whose battle cry is "mine!" or "I do it!" This is autonomy in action. When children try to care for themselves, to make their own decisions, to do the right thing, we call this autonomy. This is a basic definition of autonomy, which is actually a pretty complicated idea. If you're interested in reading more about autonomy, you may want to look up information about the studies of Jean Piaget or Candice Kamii, both of whom were strong advocates of autonomy and did a lot of research in the field of early childhood about autonomy and its effects on children. For purposes of this blog, though, we'll stick with the definition above.

So what happens when kids don't develop autonomy? According to Erikson, they experience shame and doubt. Shame, because they can't do what other kids are doing, and doubt, because they doubt their own abilities. The ramifications of this lack of autonomy can be stunningly painful--children who, at age three, don't feel they are capable or competent in certain realms of their lives. They can't get dressed, can't use the bathroom independently, can't feed themselves, can't draw or do a puzzle or keep up with their friends on the playground.

My little friend with his arms out like an airplane is a perfect example of a child who hasn't been given the opportunity to develop his own autonomy. Parents are guilty of this in many ways, as are teachers. Nobody can debate that it's easier to put on a young child's shoes for him, nor to pick out that adorable outfit for your daughter, yourself. It's easier to serve a child his food, to pour the condiments, to carry a slowly walking child to the car or wherever you're going. But the cost of performing those tasks? It's pretty high. It sends a clear message to the child: You are not as competent as me, and in some cases, You are not competent at all.

Many times, a parent's interference in a child's developing autonomy has more to do with the parent's needs than the child's. I remember a coworker describing to me a parent's anxiety at her child eating lunch at school without her. The mother had always fed the child by hand, and she was worried he wouldn't know what to do. Her child was five and entering kindergarten.

To most of us, this is an extreme example of a parent who couldn't let her child go, something most of us can't consider as even probable in our children's lives. However, there's more than one way to squash autonomy. Even things as simple as parents involving themselves in children's squabbles can sometimes interfere in burgeoning autonomy. It's a fine balance we all walk, to encourage our children to care for themselves while providing much needed support and caring.

As for my little friend and his coat, we ended up working on learning the classic coat flip. With the fall upon us, this is a great time to start practicing, and children as young as two can successfully flip their coats to put them on. To do a coat flip, lay the coat down, zipper side out, with the hood or neck at the child's feet. Have the child slip both arms into the coat arms, then flip the coat over the head. This may take a little time and guidance, but once a child masters it, s/he will feel incredibly proud of the ability to put on a coat without assistance.

Tomorrow--more about autonomy and ways to encourage it in young children. Thanks for reading, leave your comments below, and click on our sponsors!


  1. A great story about the coat flip...

    after learning about the coat flip from you, I went and implemented it in my class of 2 year olds I was teaching at the time. They of course loved it and it definetly made mine and their lives easier. Well there was one little angel in my class who's family is from Russia and she was always eager to be as autonomous as a child her age could be! She loved the coat flip and would help others figure it out too.
    Well I was reunited with her and her family about a month ago... 2 years after she was in my class. She's now four and her parents informed me that on their trip to Russia this past year I was the talk of the family. This little girl still remember me and this handy trick I taught her 2 years later. She told her family members all about it and taught her younger cousins the trick. Two years later, this little girl was just as excited about being able to put her own coat on as she was when she first learned it. She was so proud of herself and her confidence in "coat flipping" let her to share the gift with others :) Its just so awesome to me to see how me allowing her to be autonomous gave her such excitement and confidence that it's something she is still proud of 2 years later.

  2. What a great story! Isn't amazing how the things we teach children, even at such a young age, stick with them for a long, long time? Hooray for coat flips!

  3. michelle.... i just realized that one of my students is experiencing some serious shame/doubt
    now i remember things that i can do to help him from breaking out in tears when he is faced with something he feels he cannot do

    good timing with the post!

  4. Great, Marti! So glad it helps...I'll be writing more about building autonomy today!