Children and their Agency

Agency? What does that even mean?! I encountered this word a while ago within the context of behavior, and I realized that it encompassed everything I've ever wanted to say when I talk about empowering our children. When we talk about a person having a sense of agency, generally, we're talking about their ability to feel like more than a passive participant in their lives. People who have a sense of agency feel in control of their lives, feel as if they are able to handle a variety of tasks or situations, and feel responsible for their behaviors and those outcomes. It's so easy to think of our children as extensions of ourselves, especially when they're very young. They are so dependent on us for everything. We feed them, we clothe them, we give them shelter, we teach them, we love them. They need us to meet their needs, physically and emotionally.

According to the Gowrie SA, a leader in training early childhood educators, and the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), "When a child has a sense of agency, they are able to make choices and decisions to influence events, and have an impact on their world. Having a sense of agency is closely linked to the key concepts of being, belonging, and becoming, and to developing a strong sense of identity." As parents, this means that when we give our children a voice, when we give them responsibility, when we allow to choose, we can create for them a better understanding of who they are and help them to grow into strong, capable adults.

Erik Erikson, renowned psychologist and creator Erikson's Psychological Development, outlined for us the levels of development in human beings. Starting around age 2, children start to struggle with issues between autonomy, shame, and doubt. Erikson is quoted as saying, "Children that fail to develop autonomy are likely to remain dependent on adults for a protracted period of time, to the detriment of their development, or to be overly influenced by peers."


As parents, we can teach our children agency! Agency starts at a young age with small steps. We can allow children to make their own choices by giving them a few options. For instance, setting out a few clothes and allowing the child to pick their outfit provides a good way to develop their confidence. Allowing them as much choice as possible can help children to better accept situations where they have no control - such as safety and health concerns or when time may be a factor.

We can also allow children to take on small and simple tasks. Allowing them to be responsible for things, such as watering a plant, putting away their clothes, and cleaning their room, can teach them responsibility. They will also learn the consequences of their actions should they not complete their tasks.

Playing with children can also help them to develop their sense of agency. Because during play, children have complete control of their world they create and the games they play, this time is invaluable in supporting their agency. It encourages independence and creativity!

While young children often feel like they're not big enough to do things or aren't quite good enough at doing things, it can help to turn their attention to the things they are able to do and to focus on the hard work that has enabled them to progress toward their bigger goals! 

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