Establishing Autonomy- A Developmental Task of Adulthood


Young Woman Working OutThe first major task of adulthood is to establish autonomy.  An individual’s ability to achieve personal autonomy is crucial for personal maturation.  James Fowler, a  developmental psychologist describes personal autonomy as,

…a person who has a sense of independence, an ability to stand alone, if necessary, on matters of principle.  She has clear identity boundaries that make it possible to say a clear no or a clear yes, without undue coldness and distance on the one hand or an excessively compliant closeness on the other hand.  (Fowler)

An individual must break their dependency upon other humans (usually parents, but it could be anyone), and make decisions that are their own.  Deci and Ryan define autonomy as “to act in accord with one’s self—it means feeling free and volitional in one’s actions” (Deci and Ryan).  Their freedom to make decisions should include those involving their beliefs, identity, actions, relationships, and life’s purpose.

At a young age, children begin making some of their own decisions.  However, making decisions alone is not sufficient for adulthood; the individual must be able to bear the consequences of those decisions.  My two year old believes that he no longer needs daddy’s help to walk in a parking lot, however, he is not old enough to understand or bear the consequences of his decisions.

Parks states, “They must be responsible for the power they exercise as individuals” (Parks).  Many times, an individual is making decisions, but friends, parents, and others are protecting him or her from the consequences of those decisions.  “Helicopter parents” are often protected by parents from the social, emotional, mental, and financial ramifications of their decisions.  Adolescents will never learn the importance of decision-making if they do not feel the ramifications of their actions.

Walker Moore, author of Rite of Passage Parenting, believes that even children need to feel the effects of their daily decisions.  “When society removes the logical consequences from children’s lives, it also removes the parameters that guide them into good decision making and wise choices” (Moore).  Autonomy involves the ability to make free decisions and to deal with the consequences.

Parents, churches, schools, and other societal institutions need to ask how we can teach the importance of decision-making on children, and prepare adolescents for autonomy.  If you have thoughts, please include them below.


Deci, Edward and Richard Flaste.  Why we do what we do.

Fowler, James.  Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian.

Parks, Sharon.  Big Questions, Worthy Dreams.

Moore, Walter.  Rite of Passage Parenting.

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