What is Autonomy?


By Holly Allen

You're at work, and the pressure is on. There's a deadline looming, the work is demanding, and your boss has made the expectations of process and product crystal clear. In fact, all stakeholders involved insist that you follow the established process and are uninterested in your own ideas -- even though you arguably understand what you're dealing with better than they do.

Now imagine the same scenario -- pressure, deadline, demanding work -- with one difference: your boss is open to hearing how you want to approach the job, and works with you to create a process that will let everyone involved be successful. The goal is just to get the job done, and you're treated as a partner in figuring out how to do that.

Chances are you had a visceral reaction to those descriptions of work. And chances are your reaction to the second scenario was far more positive.

That's the experience of autonomy.

I like to use this example to ground the discussion of autonomy because too often, when talking about children and autonomy, the conversation gets bogged down in some common myths:

1) Autonomy is all or nothing. I don't know how often I've heard an assertion like "Well, you can't just let them do whatever they want" in a discussion of children and autonomy. But notice that in the example above, most of the constraints remain  -- the deadline is still there, the work is still hard, other people's needs must still be met. Autonomy doesn't mean the lack of all constraint.

2) Autonomy is only for those in charge. I remember a relative arguing that most kids don't need autonomy, because how many of them are ever going to run their own business? But autonomy is important in any endeavor that requires commitment and engagement. There are still a few jobs left in our society which expect unthinking obedience, but the vast majority of jobs benefit from people willing to creatively solve problems. (Ask any employer which attitude they’d prefer!)

3) Autonomy is a nice-to-have. It's true that not having autonomy doesn't generally kill people. But psychologists have long categorized autonomy as a primary psychological human need. This means that being routinely deprived of autonomy has a measurable negative impact on people, of the sort that stands up to experimental scrutiny. If we want people of any age to function at their best, we can't ignore their need for autonomy. Compare the two situations above again: long-term, in which scenario can you imagine being more effective?

So what is autonomy?

Different fields of study define autonomy in subtly different ways. For our purposes, autonomy implies a state of self-determination, where an individual feels that they have the ability to affect their situation. This is an experiential definition; the same situation can impact people differently. One adult might feel under-challenged and stifled in their job, while another person in the same job feels aligned with the organization. One student might experience their classroom as oppressively restrictive and controlling; another might experience the teacher as a mentor, and be deeply interested in their class.

Fundamentally, the aligned worker and interested student have opted in. When we opt in to a situation, for whatever reason -- inherent interest, working toward a goal, the strength of the surrounding relationships -- we become engaged. We bring creativity and enthusiasm to whatever we do. But for opting in to be meaningful, there must be an opportunity for individuals to opt out as well, and look for a situation which will work better for them.

We all enjoy interacting with people who are engaged their work. Think of the store clerk who listens to your need and tries to help you find a creative solution, vs. the one who shrugs and tells you that "we don't sell that." Or the person in your office who's interested in cutting through an unnecessary paper trail, vs. the one who just fills in the forms, because "it's what you do." Or, if you're a teacher, the student who writes an excited, tangled essay about bugs, vs. the one who builds three paragraphs of grammatically correct dull facts (one topic sentence and three supporting sentences in each paragraph).

Over time, essay structure can be improved. But enthusiasm, once extinguished, is hard to reignite.

Holly Allen is a software engineer, parent of three, and co-author with Don Berg of Most Schools Won’t Fit.