Seven Tips to Foster Your Toddler’s Budding Independence“Me do! ME do! ME DO!,” screamed my 18-month-old niece every time her mother tried to buckle her in the car seat, lift her into her highchair, carry her up the stairs, or pour her milk. This child was crying out for her mother to notice her independent spirit and offer opportunities for her to try new things, master new and more difficult tasks and take more ownership of her life. This is pretty typical of 18-month to three-year-old kids.

Infants teach themselves to roll over, to scoot across the floor, to sit up, crawl and finally walk. As parents, we encourage and applaud each and every one of their attempts at mastering their bodies even when we see them fall over, skin their chins, bump their foreheads and cry tears of frustration. Likewise, because children are hardwired for independence, they don’t require any applause from their parents to learn these new skills. They are naturally curious and motivated to master every aspect of their world.

Unfortunately, the moment a child has two free hands, in an effort to offer loving support we say things like, “You are too small, you will spill, I can do it faster, you go play, you are taking too long, it’s too hot, it’s too sharp,” and before long, that natural enthusiasm for learning begins to diminish.

The next time your child asks to try something new, to do it herself or to help you, try any or all of these responses instead:

  1. Identify your fears and prepare accordingly. Instead of pulling the plug on high slides, hot toasters, sharp knives, the stairs, climbing into the car, or carrying dishes, find creative ways to provide the same experience with a smaller risk factor until both you and your child feel confident.
  2. Start small. Stay alert to the cues your child is sending you that she is ready to start feeding herself or he is ready to get into the car seat without help. She could handle brushing her own hair, or maybe he is ready to make his own breakfast. This will build a foundation necessary for raising a remarkably capable and responsible young person.
  3. Allow children a chance to struggle, fuss, even cry before we rush to their sides and try to end their frustration. The ability to overcome feeling stuck, learning to wait, and doing something repeatedly and solving problems helps foster self-confidence.
  4. Never do for a child what a child can do for himself. Identify what tasks your child is capable of handling and let him do them. If he can put on his shoes, don’t step in and make the process quicker. Instead, provide ample time for him to complete the tasks. If he can put on his coat, let him and step in if he asks for help zipping it up.
  5. Teach and plan accordingly. If you have a child who is determined to pour her own milk, set aside the time to teach her. Transfer milk into a smaller container, put the container in the fridge where she can reach it, and put the cups in a cupboard at her level and hand over the entire process to her as she is ready. When all is calm, invite her to master her pouring skills and be there for support when it spills; then teach her how to clean it up. As her skills develop you have the opportunity to slowly back yourself out of the process.
  6. Practice, practice, practice. In order for kids to develop resiliency to forge on through the ups and down that go hand in hand with all learning, kids will need oodles of practice time. As parents, we need to step out of the way and allow our children to make mistakes and encourage them to keep trying.
  7. Celebrate! If your two-year-old made his lunch for the first time (after many failed attempts and with jelly all over the floor), pause for a moment and celebrate the fact that he made it through the failures, as minimal or as grand as they may seem to us. This is progress! Acknowledge and move forward to the next thing.

I encourage you to provide as many opportunities as you can for your children to become more independent and self-reliant by helping them develop the skills necessary to navigate their fast-paced, ever-changing world with confidence and enthusiasm. This begins by allowing them a chance to master basic tasks, make simple choices, share in decision making, learn how to self-soothe and overcome momentary frustrations and disappointments.

Are your children asking for more independence? How are you encouraging and teaching them? Are you unsure of how much independence is age appropriate?

 

About Vicki Hoefle

For more than two decades, parent educator, author, speaker and coach, Vicki Hoefle, has been helping families across the country. Her strategies work for every family, whether you are just starting the parenting journey, beginning to experience the first challenges of raising children in the 21st century, living with stress, or facing a crisis. Vicki inspires families and shows them how to spend their time and energy investing in the relationship, focus on what is important and experience the joy of living in a healthy, loving family.

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  • Sara A.

    My 3 year old has been helping me out since she started to demand things to do at about 18 months. She sets the table for dinner if I hand her the plates, cups, and silverware. She’s obsessed with serving spoons and trivets for some reason. She also helps in the kitchen by peeling onions and ripping up greens and lettuce. When we bake, she does the scooping and the dumping with a quarter cup measure and then mixes the dry ingredients together while I do the wet. This past weekend I taught her how to use a peeler to peel carrots and parsnips. She’s not very good at it, but that will come. When she wants to help in the kitchen she runs to her play kitchen to grab her apron, then to the bathroom for her step stool.

    When we clean, she can wipe things up with a rag or paper towel. She has a lot of practice because she only drinks from an open cup and spills fairly often. She also has to help clean up after an accident. She runs to get her toy broom if I’m sweeping and her mop if I’m mopping. She’ll go to town with a swiffer, but most of our messes are bigger than a swiffer can handle. She’s not quite ready to hold the dustpan as I sweep, she’s not very strong and easily distracted, but she wants to try.

    • Vicki Hoefle

      Thanks for sharing your story! Sounds like you have a fabulous helper and she’s well on her way to mastering necessary life skills. Would you be willing to share your strategy for letting go and accepting the messes that come with learning?

      • Sara A.

        There really isn’t a strategy. I’d rather deal with a little mess than tantrums and this way she feels capable and useful. She’s usually helping with messy projects, so I’d be cleaning up afterward anyway… I also read somewhere that if someone can do a task at least 70% as well as you would, you should delegate it. This was directed at bosses or supervisors, but it’s served me well. What’s 70% as well when it comes to setting a table? As long as everything is on the table, that’s half way there.

        • Vicki Hoefle

          You are a wise woman! Thanks for the comments and wishing you all the best on the journey of parenthood! V