“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?