How to Cultivate Autonomy (Part 1)

Whether you know what to do or don’t know what to do, these behaviors have been learned (and taught).  The environment one finds themselves in caters to these patterns, and is socially accepted (and encouraged).  Our habits define who we are.  They can be considered as automated decisions, where no thinking or effort or friction against occurs.  Automated decisions become automated actions, even if the described action is ‘not doing’.  Not doing is another form of doing, just contrary to what is expected or desired by someone outside that body.  The following hopes to frame how I nudge those who are idle or passively existing toward being able to direct themselves toward personal development.

We’ll start with the young.  Kids know EXACTLY what they want to do, and tend to be self-directed until they are reprimanded or re-directed otherwise.  Many “no’s” are given to tiny beings who live in a reality that anything is possible.   Except thatOr that at this time.  They learn boundaries.  In this culture of fear and threat, however, their starting map is infinitely smaller than mine was at their age, which was infinitely smaller than my parents were at their age.  We are generationally shrinking children’s experience.

Long gone are the days when they could just take off on a bike to explore until dark came.  Mike Boyle famously said, “children don’t need training, they need a bike and a best friend.”  He now offers training programs to middle schoolers. Such is the way of things.  We took away what was free and natural and instead placed them in ‘programs’.  We manufactured their experience, and removed their discernment.  We showed them work was better than play.


There is no substitute for this loss of play.

Tell them again to get off their phones.

It’s the only ‘play’ they know.


I have been working with a young boy since he was seven.  He is now eleven.  His parents recognized he had some motor control issues.  He never crawled, and he had an atypical form of walking and running.  Like any concerned caregiver, they were looking for help to fix a problem.  What the boy most needed (and still craves) is a place where he can be successful on his own terms.  He sets the agenda and activities he is interested in that day, he determines how many/ much is enough, and I just toss in a specific challenge every now and then.  They are not easy, but he always meets them.  I know how to place things just out of reach for growth to occur.  I have taken the role of that supportive best friend who says yes to whatever he dreams up.

With teens, and groups of them, things get tricky.  They are so socially driven and protective.  Unless they get placed in a group that happens to have a peer leader of greater skill and ability, the guys will generally be goofy and the girls will generally be complacent.  It is a way to deflect trying and failing.  There solution is to not try.  Check all the boxes of class needs/ expectations, but don’t do anything if you aren’t told.  (This mirrors the structure of the educational system, which tells instead of asks.)

The girls tend to be able so show their state physically, and are usually receptive to the question of, “what do you need?”  The ones that have never been asked before usually shrug and look away, and when I receive this, I give them the typical options that have helped others: Do you need space?  A person?  Do you want to be by yourself or with a group?  Once I lay these out, they can identify the ‘most accurate’ and I can give it to them without any type of ‘score keeping’.  After, I asked if it helped, and 99% of the time it does.  They now have a known solution.  It might not work all the time, but at least they have a strategy to self regulate, and a trust that if they ask for a need that is different from others, they won’t be shunned for it.

The guys try to hide everything.  Even when they are obviously not fine, they say they are.  They want a distraction, and tend to use their relationships with peers to further develop a masked persona.  Frustrated or neglected boys get destructive.  The ones that trust you can open up and start that same self-regulation process, and the ones that don’t just wait for a change of scenery with hopes there will be something there to take their mood or thinking to a different place.  One-on-one progress can happen, but they tend to run in packs… adhering to a type of character (gangster, funny guy) they have gotten praise for.  It takes many conversations before a boy begins to change a behavior, if they decide to change at all.

My one pull with them is if they are injured or really trying to improve at something, and they realize I can actually help them (particularly where other trusted/ respected adults have failed).  I’ll be honest, though, and say these types don’t come around very often, especially in the large, comprehensive high school setting.  When I do find one open and willing, however, I treat them like anyone else in this situation.  I ask them questions to dig into their psyche and help them figure out what they really want, often reflecting what they say as I go.  Once what they want and why they want it is clear, I offer up step-by-step adjustments to what they already do.


To be autonomous means that you desire to go in a different direction than you have been lead.


You might have followed others, you might have followed a given path without question, you might have followed an ideal or identity.  Ultimately, you didn’t like where you ended up or the version of you who took that road.  In this realization, you feel betrayed by the signs and markers you trusted to navigate where to go (and how to get there).  Lost and in despair, you do not know how to orient on your own, so you do one of three things:  sit and stay stuck, hire a guide to help you, or keep walking the way that you were with the hope that something will change for you.


Part Two of this series applies these concepts toward working with the elderly.



[Feature Photo by Amy Treasure on Unsplash.]

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