Kids and Autonomy

“What did I care [about the future], if in the here and now you were alive, and well, and happy? I never dreamed that I would have such a person on my hands.” – Albus Dumbledore

My oldest child, Max, always hated timers.

From when he was really small, whenever I would set a timer and say “you’ve got two more minutes,” it sent him all to pieces.

He’d spend those two minutes staring at the timer, and crying as often as not. He just could not forget about it and go back to whatever he was doing.

I think it was just the idea of this clock ticking down: Tick. Tick. Tick.

So, we stopped using them very early on. It was not worth the struggle, especially as he did so much better when I would say “you need to be all done with that in two minutes” without the timer.

And then, in his tweens in early teens (he is 18 now, and has given me permission to share this story), Max confronted the scourge of the alarm clock.

He hates coming and going to the dictates of an alarm, an alert. It’s just too much like a timer for him.

But even though it’s like nails on a chalkboard, he has figured out how to use it.

He’s also figured out how to schedule his life, so he gets to class, and work, on time.
He gets himself and his brother to school on time.
He even schedules and gets himself to his own haircut appointments.

In short, Max is a very responsible 18-year-old.

A fact that I failed to see, and which has caused much conflict in our home as we try to figure out how to live together, 3 adults in one house.

“I need more autonomy.”

Early in the year Max asked for a meeting with his Dad and I.
He scheduled it to tell us that he wants “more autonomy.” He wanted us to help him figure out how to get that autonomy.

Together, the three of us figured out a system that would work.

And it was working, until I went and screwed it up this week by getting too worried.

I started obsessively tracking: what time did he get in last night?
How long did his alarm have to go off this morning before he shut it off and got up?
Did he eat anything before he left the house?
Would he get to his destination on time?

In talking to people whose opinion I really respect, such as my therapist, I decided it would be best to take a hard line:
“Max, don’t make your Dad and I ratchet back the hours you’re allowed to use OUR car.”

To us – maybe to you – this sounds eminently reasonable.
What I was really saying was “keep towing this line… Keep showing me you are safe. That’s how you can have your autonomy.”

But what Max heard and felt was very different. He felt that he could never just be private, keep his own hours and do what he wanted to do.

It turns out he felt that his Dad and I didn’t trust him.

So, what did he do about his feeling that we were keeping too many tabs on him?
Did he “show us” by staying out too late, deliberately?
Did he rail at us, and shout and yell?
Did he swear and scream and throw things?

He did none of the above.
Instead, he did something that showed me how truly grown-up he really is:
He kept bringing it up with us. Even through tears and his obvious frustrations, even through his anger with us and his feeling that we don’t trust him.
He kept his part of this conversation open, and (maybe most importantly) he kept upholding his other responsibilities.

One thing that really resonated: he said “roommates don’t tell each other where they’re going and when they’ll be home.”

I suddenly realized, he’s incredibly trustworthy.
He doesn’t drive while intoxicated.
He keeps himself and his laundry clean.
He cheerfully chauffeurs his brother around.
He contributes to the chores around here.

Max engages with us in conversation even! He spends quality time with us. (To me, this is the most important one.)
He enjoys the banter around the dinner table, and loves to go really deep on a whole bunch of topics.
Max and his girlfriend came out to celebrate with us over the weekend, because younger brother Jay scored his first-ever soccer goal.

All this really came to a head in our most recent discussion just this morning. While we spoke I remembered how much he hated timers as a boy.

Max hates anything that he feels is a restriction on him.
And he always has.

This is so completely different from the way that I think. I like the security of a finite amount of time!

I like knowing when something will end, and when it will be time to move on to the next thing.

It never occurred to me that somebody would not like that.
But the next thought that followed logically was: just because you don’t want somebody looking over your shoulder, you don’t want to be timed, does that make you a bad person?
Does it make you untrustworthy?

Of course not.

As soon as I realized all this, like just a few hours ago, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to ease up on the restrictions that Max felt were most egregious, mostly about continually being in touch via text message.

I realized that I needed to change my current relationship with him. He’s no longer a child.

He’s a trustworthy man, who can be responsible for his own schedule, sleep, and life. I must support him in that – but not by monitoring.

“I never dreamed I would have such a person on my hands.” Albus Dumbledore said those words about this child that he loved.

But when he said those words, the child was no longer a child. And in that scene Dumbledore’s mistake (as he shares with Harry) is the mistake of an older person, trying to control a younger person by messing with his autonomy.

I wanted to share the story with you today, because you may have a child who hates timers.
Or not – maybe it is you who hates the timers, and your child loves them. And maybe you cannot understand that.

Even if you don’t understand your child’s preferences, do your best to keep those lines of communication open.

Because someday your child will be no longer a child.

What’s up on the podcast this week:

If you’ve ever struggled with less-than-quality childcare, whether in daycare or in a school setting, today’s episode is for you!

Because you are not alone. I’ve been working closely with people whose childcare providers do inscrutable things – one mom tells of an “aggression journal” her 3-year-old son’s childcare teachers are keeping about him! – and another who found her most recent parent-teacher conference frightening and overwhelming.

Which is why today I’m bringing you, in audio format, the class I taught just last week, all about “How to get quality childcare.”

Click the link below to listen:

What’s up on my YouTube channel this week:

Extending on this theme, the live YouTube (I do one every Thursday) is called
“3 crucial factors for quality childcare”
Check out my YouTube channel by clicking here.

What’s up in the We Turned Out Okay Facebook group this week:

Each Monday at 10:30 a.m. EST, I do a superquick Facebook live that I call “Magic Words for Parents”… And this week I share one single question you can ask a child care provider, in order to ensure that your child is getting good quality childcare.
This, and all the back episodes of Magic Words for Parents are available 24/7 in the We Turned Out Okay Facebook group, so  click here to view or (if you haven’t yet) join!

Wishing you a wonderful parenting week,
Karen of

Picture of the week:

In this segment of our weekly parenting email, I share something I’ve been working on this week, something that is feeding my soul.

While we were away recently visiting my parents in Colorado I got to spend some time with this quilt that I made them more than a decade ago.
It is of the 10-Mile Range in the Colorado Rockies, as seen from the house they lived in in Breckenridge (they now live in a different and in many ways better house nearby).
I’m honored that they still have it on their wall! And I do enjoy “visiting” with it whenever I stay with them. I wanted to share with you because seeing it again just made me so happy. I hoped it might make you happy too. Cheers!

Get updates just like this automagically delivered to your inbox each Wednesday, by joining the We Turned Out Okay email group…
Click here to join!