One definition of sustainability is when all parts of a system are in a balanced state, allowing natural development. In a family system, this means each person’s needs for food, shelter, stimulation and connection are met. As any parent knows, it can sometimes be hard to balance everyone’s needs, without someone compromising, or missing out (and it’s often the parent that misses out!). Here’s 7 steps to teaching your child autonomy, to help make your parenting more sustainable.

Just as in nature, where everything has its season to flourish, be dormant, or die, there’s a fluctuation in family members’ needs, where some must take precedence over others.

Problems in child development arise when the family system doesn’t know how to pass from one season to the next, to rebalance the priorities once a member’s needs are met or reduced. Nature has a funny way of tipping the balance, just at the point where you think you’ve found it!

Make your parenting sustainable

For instance, many parents complain to me about how their young child, who had established a sleep routine of falling asleep on their own, has lost their independence after a period of being sick.

When a young child is very sick the parent will feel the need to protect them, even if means sitting up with them all night. And even over a number of nights. The child’s need for nurturance when they’re sick is very normal, and equal to the parent’s need to nurture and protect them. The system is in balance.

The system goes out of balance when the child continues to ask for the parent’s help in getting to sleep once the sickness has passed AND the parents fail to see that the need has passed.

Many parents become conflicted when this occurs. Resentment grows because the parent’s need for time as a couple or for evening activities goes unmet as they spend more time trying to get the child to sleep. Underneath the resentment, I believe, is the parent’s longing to help their child find autonomy, which is most parent’s ultimate goal.

Parents of older children often complain that their tireless efforts to provide for their kids aren’t met with appreciation.

These parents have also missed the signs of the change of season when needing nurturance and assistance turns to a need for parental restraint while the child learns to do things on their own.

An overly busy schedule doesn’t allow parents to let children make mistakes, while they learn to perform tasks autonomously. Often mothers say, ‘it’s easier if I do it myself!’ There’s no pride in their children when they say this, only resentment. It can be turned around by scheduling in time for children to learn from their own mistakes; with the parent just around the corner to offer help when requested.

How can we notice when, as parents, we’re over-attending to our children? How can we notice when our own needs for acknowledgement, appreciation, and respect aren’t being met? How can we recalibrate our family system so that balance is restored and sustainability ensured?

7 steps to teaching your child autonomy

I recommend that you honour the feeling of frustration and/or resentment that arises. It’s a valuable sign that your need to teach autonomy is unmet, not that your child is ‘bad’. As parents, we all feel these feelings. It’s normal, and it’s healthy, as long as you make space to release those feelings. Here are some ways forward if you’re trying to develop more sustainable parenting in your household:

  • Find someone safe to voice your resentment to in order to release it, and get validation for it. This can be as simple as inviting a friend over for a cup of tea, and venting. Often this will end in laughter, which is a powerful medicine.
  • Next, identify 1 specific activity you’d like to change in order to restore balance. It might be sleep time, or meal time, or getting ready for school time. Don’t tackle them all at once, just choose 1.
  • Set an intention to make this an opportunity to teach autonomy. Write this down to turn it into a goal. It might look like, ‘I’m teaching my daughter autonomy by allowing her to make her own lunch in the mornings’.
  • Make time for mistakes, yours and your child’s. They’ll make mistakes (in our example the mistake might be forgetting lunch altogether!), and this is how they’ll learn.
  • Make time to praise achievements, yours and your child’s. By reinforcing what success looks like, you’ll both grow.
  • Remember that no one is right or wrong, we’re simply trying to grow with the seasons, and restore balance. Keep trying until you crack this autonomy goal, before moving on to the next one.
  • Before you do move on your child’s next activity, take stock. Review in your head what worked well, and what didn’t work so well. Do more of the first, and less of the second!

That’s the 7 steps to teaching your child autonomy. Now that you’ve cracked your first activity, it’s time to move on to the next one. Don’t skimp on the steps above too. Some of the most amazing problems in this world have been solved over a cup of tea!

For more on setting goals in a family context, check out Are we there yet? A guide to family vision and goals.

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Marta Fisch is a family and individual therapist, supervisor, and trainer. She loves playing with her son, dancing, and riding her bike to work. She's involved in community sustainability initiatives, which brings her hope and a sense of belonging. Marta grew up in California and has lived in New Zealand / Aotearoa for 20 years. You can find out more on her website

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