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Autonomy in Child Development

Build confident and independent children by supporting autonomy in early childhood.

Autonomy in Child Development

Autonomy in Child Development

As adults, autonomy is something we often take for granted. Making our own decisions feels like an ability we’ve had since birth; however, autonomy is developed as a child. A child begins showing autonomy as they choose their toys, select what clothes to wear, and decide what foods to eat. 

Autonomy is essential to promoting confident, independent children. In this article, we’ll discuss autonomy in child development—what it is, its benefits, and how to encourage it in children.

What is autonomy in child development?

Autonomy is a person’s ability to be self-sufficient, acting on their desires, values, and interests. Autonomy in child development lets children know they have control over themselves and their decisions. According to Erikson’s Stages of Development, a sense of autonomy develops during toddler years (18 months to three years old).

Examples of autonomy in children include toilet training, picking out their clothes, deciding what foods they like (or don’t like), and choosing which toys to play with. There are many benefits to children’s autonomy that help build their self-esteem and confidence.

What are the benefits of children’s autonomy?

Learning, understanding, and expressing autonomy are significant steps in early childhood education and development. Not only does it build independence, but it pushes children to understand that their choices and actions have outcomes. 

The benefits of child autonomy include: 

  • Developed sense of self
  • Improved confidence
  • Command over their minds and bodies
  • Critical thinking support
  • Self-motivation
  • Increased responsibility

Knowing the many great benefits associated with supporting autonomy in children, how can you work to encourage them?

How to encourage autonomy in children

A baby has little to no autonomy. Between 18 months and three years old, the surrounding adults should start building and encouraging autonomy in a child. Autonomous traits start naturally developing during this time. A child might start incorporating words or phrases like “No!” and “I want that!” into their vocabulary. They might start experimenting with cause and effect, for example, seeing what happens if they knock over a cup of water.

Although hearing “no” from a child can be less than favorable, it’s a sign that they’re discovering and testing out their autonomy. There might be some growing pains during this process, but the final product is worth it.

To encourage autonomy in children, you can:

  • Offer choices
  • Create opportunities for autonomy
  • Give them tasks
  • Respect their opinions
  • Label and validate their feelings
  • Let them work through challenges

Offer choices

Toddlers have little control over their lives. Give them choices when you can. Deciding what to wear is a great method of self-expression. Simply asking a child if they want to wear a green or red shirt starts building autonomy in them. In the classroom, give them choices for snack time. Let them select what book to read for storytime. While these might seem like trivial decisions to an adult, they can make a world of difference for young children and their development.

Create opportunities for autonomy

Creating opportunities for autonomy in children provides them with more independence than offering choices. If a child is coloring and empties the entire box of crayons in the process, let them. Once they have finished their activity, ask for their help in putting them away. For snack time, allow your young toddlers to have free reign over what they choose. You can set parameters by limiting them to one snack; however, this opportunity to make their own decision is significant in building their autonomy and independence.

Give them tasks

There’s a reason adults feel happy after they accomplish a task. There’s a level of fulfillment you get when you place a checkmark into a square box. Young children can also experience these feelings and emotions. Giving a toddler a task can evoke feelings of independence and boost autonomy. Ask them if they can “help you” push a cart in the grocery store. Ask them to clean up their toys. Not only will these tasks help channel some of their energy, but it will give them a taste of being in control and freedom.

Respect their opinions

Young children have very little control over what they do. To build their autonomy, they need to know that not only do they have control over their thoughts and opinions but that they also matter. Listen to them. Allow them to act upon their opinions.

Label and validate their feelings

When a child is developing, their emotions can feel big. As they learn to be more autonomous, they might fail. Those feelings of failure can lead to challenging behavior. They might have difficulty identifying their feelings, so by labeling and validating them, you can help promote autonomy. 

A large part of this method relies on the observation skills of the adult. If you notice sadness, label the feeling and express that it’s okay to feel sad. If they express anger, do the same. Being allowed to express their feelings is another way children develop autonomy.

Let them work through challenges

Making mistakes is an experience that boosts autonomy. Allowing children to safely work through a challenge boosts independence and self-esteem—especially when they succeed. It also boosts their problem-solving skills. If you notice that they’re becoming frustrated, offer assistance and gently guide them through completing it. 

Autonomy building for parents

Early childhood development should be a collaboration between educators and parents. Parents should focus on creating spaces and providing opportunities for their children to be independent. They can adopt any of the six ways of encouraging autonomy listed above. 

Additional ways you might build autonomy in your children include letting them play without direction. Instead of brushing their teeth for them, ask them to do it while you brush yours. The next time they ask you to do a task you previously did for them, like open a juice box, suggest that they try it themselves. Again, if you notice that they’re struggling, offer assistance.

Building autonomy in children at an early age is an essential part of raising confident, independent children. With educators and families teaming up to focus on autonomy in child development, you’re promoting well-adjusted, emotionally intelligent individuals.


What is autonomy?

Autonomy is a person’s ability to govern themselves, acting on their desires, values, and interests.

What is autonomy in child development?

Autonomy in child development lets children know they have control over themselves and their decisions.

How do you support autonomy in early childhood?

You can support autonomy in early childhood by offering children choices, creating opportunities for autonomy, giving them independent tasks, respecting their opinions, labeling and validating their feelings, and letting them safely work through challenges.

How can parents foster autonomy in children?

Parents can foster autonomy in children by creating spaces and providing opportunities for them to be independent. This can include giving them free play time or demonstrating tasks such as tying their shoes.

What are the benefits of encouraging autonomy in children?

The benefits of child autonomy include a developed sense of self, improved confidence, a command over their minds and bodies, critical thinking support, self-motivation, and increased responsibility.

Final thoughts

By offering your child the ability to make their own decisions, assigning them tasks, and creating space for them to express their opinions, you are setting up your child to be autonomous. As they get older, they will feel more confident and have a better sense of who they are.

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