Autonomy and the Emergent Process

Posted by on Sep 24, 2010 in Preserving Wholeness | 3 comments

Without the internal fire to become ones own person — to develop your own beliefs, feelings, desires and motivations — we do not feel responsible for our actions and instead live in a perpetual illusion of victimhood.

Last week I relayed Daniel Pink’s proposal that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the areas that we should focus on developing if we want to bring the best out of human beings. This week I will take autonomy and widen it into a more useful construct: the emergent process.

The emergent process is one of three streams of the maturational process as laid out by Gordon Neufeld. (Click here for an overview of this process.) I understand emergence most clearly as a movement: From a place of satiation we open up and move out into the world. When the fetus has been sufficiently fattened up inside of mommy, he then moves down and out of her and becomes a separate viable being, recognized for his own uniqueness by all who are present. When the six-month old first starts to push herself off from daddy’s warm, cozy lap, that is emergence. When your toddler suddenly throws a fit whenever you try to help him carry that heavy bike up two flights of stairs, that is his emerging desire to do things himself.

We all start with a desire to be at the steering wheel of our lives, to have a sense of agency. We are each born interested in exploring and experiencing all of the amazing things Life has created. We start out curious about how things work, wanting to know how we can do things more efficiently, and wanting to create things of beauty and meaning. We naturally want to ignite the hearts of others.

Somewhere along the way, many people lose these inherent qualities of our True Nature. The more I look at my own psyche and the more I look at the research, the more clear I become that it has a lot to do with the rampant use of behaviorism in our culture.

When a child (or anyone for that matter) feels coerced or pushed towards a particular course of action from forces outside themselves, this evokes one of two main reactions: either go along with the desires of the person doing the cajoling or push back, dig in your heels, and do the opposite to save your budding autonomy and agency. With punishments and rewards as our primary means of discipline, we as parents and teachers begin to deepen the grooves of mere compliance or defensive obstinance in our children. We do not support their emerging capacity to feel that they are more and more autonomous everyday and therefore have more and more responsibility consonant with their freedom. And even worse, if the manipulation is occuring within an important attachment relationship we will double the trouble: remember that it is from a state of satiation that children emerge. We must be fully fed — both physically and relationally — before the energy of emergence arises.

Take Home: If we focus on filling our children up with relational nourishment, nature will do the rest by wiring up the brain in a way that the qualities of autonomy, agency, responsibility, curiosity, and creativity will emerge in ever widening rings over their lifespan. Trying to punish and reward these qualities into existence not only diminishes their likelihood, it also takes a toll on our relationship.

Try: Check into your own experience on this: How would it feel if your friend came over to your house and said, “If you drive me to the airport tomorrow I will put four stickers on your sticker chart so everyone can see how you’re such a good girl!” Does that make you more or less likely to want to spend an hour in the car with this friend taking her to the airport? How does it make you feel about your relationship?

Click here to view last weeks post on Preserving Intrinsic Motivation
Click here for a review of the 5 Elements of Relational Nourishment


  1. While I agree with the overall theoretical approach here, I must say that years of working with kids across the various stages of development (including many diverse sorts of wiring from autism to Downs to OCD) as well as parenting my own kids, continually humbles me and pushes me toward the pragmatic realization that different kids need different things at different times, including limits and consequences.

    Sometimes as parents we have to tolerate the projected hate of our kids (and hopefully model for them love in the face of their frustration) and if we only work to satiate them (and at times I feel like I’m running a luxury hotel for my kids) they do not necessarily spontaneously learn to contribute (sometimes they need to be told to pitch in; sometimes expectations must be set).

    Mostly I have found that parenting is very hard and constantly changing, and therefore parents too need compassion and support (especially given how few people have gotten this ideal sort of parenting whey they were kids and being wired by their environment).

    In many cases if we give love nature will do the rest, but in other cases that simply is not enough—and we run the risk of shaming and blaming parents when their kids are wired differently and struggle even though they are getting wonderful love and sensitivity.

    I’m all for high ideals, but I always go back in my mind to Winnicott and the notion of “good enough” parenting (rather than perfection which is not possible anyway). A lot of new parents are pretty hard on themselves and we need to acknowledge that there’s room to fall short and be human (and these “optimal frustrations” are also part of healthy development).

    Still, it’s kind of you to get us thinking about these things, trending us away from behaviorism and over-control, and encouraging us to bring out the best in ourselves and our kids. Namaste

  2. Yes Bruce, I totally agree:
    Every kid is different, and even the same child needs different things at different stages and epochs of their life.
    I am certainly not against limits (see and and )

    As best I can tell right now, kids need 5 essential forms of nourishment from us to develop fully: unconditional love, space, healthy limits, mentorship, and mistakes. (see for more details on that)
    So yes I am with you. This is not about only love and space (although love and space are essential to healthy growth). kids need boundaries, limits, and appropriate maturity demands placed on them to develop their adaptive and integrative functioning. And I definitely don’t mean to suggest that this about “perfect parenting,” whatever the hell that might be. (see for my thoughts on that)

    Thanks for your comments as always Bruce!

  3. I loved your forum post.Thanks Again. Cool. Sharkey

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