Good deeds and choosing autonomy

My friend is a big sister. To someone who is not a blood relative. And who is a little boy. Apparently there is a shortage of men who want to be big brothers to little boys in this town. Which is a shame. But while I’m pretty sure I would be a disappointing big sister to most little boys (too many quiet games), my friend is great. Her little brother likes sports and she’s an athlete, so that worked out.

He has trouble reading. He doesn’t like school at all. He’s eight, which means he’s still young enough that it can get turned around. But the longer he doesn’t read and do math, and instead acts like school and learning and – worst of all – effort – are dumb, the graver his situation becomes.

So she’s got a plan. Every week they meet one afternoon and they play sports and then they read. He hates the reading part but he loves the sports.

Last time she showed up and the principal said he’d been acting up. They didn’t know whether he was upset that she was ten minutes late, or whether he was hungry.

Upset or hungry. Both are alarming, particularly the latter. Maybe he was both, or neither. Sometimes it’s hard to know with an eight year old.

Dan Pink has plenty of ideas about motivation in his book Drive. Here’s a link to an animated video about it. The book talks about three components of career satisfaction. Spoiler alert: money is not one of them. They are Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. When I think about times I’ve been frustrated with work, typically one of those items has been in play.

The drive for Autonomy develops as we grow up, but I can remember being a child and wanting to do things my way. Maybe “being upset or hungry” for my friend’s little brother meant that he had no autonomy in the classroom. No freedom, no ability to direct his own life.

I was listening to a podcast this week. A family physician was being interviewed and she told a story about two patients who came into her office back to back. Both were middle aged women.

The first had multiple sclerosis. She was in an electric scooter that she controlled with chin movements. She was not mobile from the neck down. The doctor asked how she was doing.

“I’m wonderful. I’ve been busy seeing friends this week and I’m going to a concert on the weekend which I’m really looking forward to.”

The second patient was experiencing mild lower back pain. The doctor asked how she was doing.

“Things aren’t going so well, I’m really struggling with my back pain and my family doesn’t understand what I’m going through”.

The doctor was actually talking about parenting, and so she made the point that everyone is trying to raise a human who thinks like the first woman and not like the second. They talked about autonomy as a way to lock in that positive attitude. They said sending your kids to camp is really good for them because they are forced to do things they otherwise would not know that they could do. So autonomy leads to self-worth. And the podcast was really about summer camp, not parenting or being a doctor. If you’re reading this, and you have children, you should send them to camp.

I met my other friend’s new kitten last week. Bengal, which means he’s playful and large. And gorgeous. I’m becoming a cat lover, in spite of myself. This kitten cuddled right into my lap and started purring. I didn’t know if he was tired or happy.

Tired or happy. Maybe both.

I know he liked his autonomy, because we kept losing him in the apartment and then finding him after a short hunt, curled up on a pillow or suede boot. We left him alone and he found his way. So, it’s not confined to human beings.

The urge to control our lives. Seems reasonable, although how many of us actually do? And what would you do differently if you were given permission to control your life?

I think mine would look a lot like it does today, which is a good sign. But maybe I would find a kid that I could help learn to read. That’s something worth doing. And I would challenge myself to do things I didn’t know how to do – and my self-worth would blossom. And finally I would spend more time listening to podcasts and snuggling with kittens.

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