Fostering Your Child’s Independence
By Elizabeth Heubeck
Though long and stymied by the occasional pothole and detour, the road to independence for all children begins earlier than many parents can imagine. One day, you’re holding your newborn bundle of joy and the next thing you know, you’re hearing the adamant and repeated “No—I do it!” from your toddler.
That stubborn refrain is actually a positive thing. It lets you know that your child is ready to hit the road to independence. Your job is to take the cue from your toddler and embrace the journey, helping him or her navigate potholes and avoid detours along the way when possible.
Brenda Hussey-Gardner, Ph.D., child development specialist and assistant professor of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, offers expert advice on how to play co-pilot. The following tips can help you facilitate your toddlers’ growing independence.
Order Matters: Mommy or Daddy Go First. It’s time to clean up the play room. Try starting the process yourself and then asking your tot to join in and finish the job—not the other way around—suggests Hussey-Gardner.
Here’s why. It allows you to “model” the behavior you want your child to follow. It can also be a self-esteem builder, especially if you say something such as, “Can you make sure Mommy put all the toys in the toy box?”
Third, it can help instill the all-important lesson of finishing what you start.
Model from Your Child’s Perspective. This tip is to be taken quite literally. If, for instance, you’re helping your daughter learn to zip her coat, get in back of her, wrap your arms around to the front of her, and place your hands just where she would place hers, rather than facing her and demonstrating it that way. Children find it far easier to take the lead this way.
“They’re seeing exactly how everything works this way,” explains Hussey-Gardner.
Slow Down. Yes, it’s much quicker to put on and pull off your child’s clothing each day, rather than having him do it himself. But, as Hussey-Gardner reminds parents, when you’re learning, things take time. She estimates that it will take double or triple the amount of time to complete a task when you let your child do it.
And the payoff is right around the corner when, in a few years, he gets dressed all by himself.
Make It Fun. While some toddlers can’t wait to do everything “by myself,” others need a little motivation. Still others revel in mastering a skill, but find it tiresome to do it every day.
You can handle this resistance a couple of ways. You can be very stern about your expectations, even yell and scream, making it intolerable for everyone involved. Or, you can try to make it as fun and, consequently, as painless as possible. Games such as “Let’s see if we can beat the timer!” are effective motivators, according to Hussey-Gardner.
Remember to Praise. To a toddler, cleaning up a roomful of toys or getting dressed is a big deal. It’s an even bigger deal when it meets Mom’s or Dad’s approval. And it doesn’t have to mean a special treat to eat or a toy. A great big hug and a “Wow, great job!” should suffice. BC
My Toddler Can Do What?
A List of Self-Help Skills Attained by (Most) 1- and 2-Year-Olds
Eating. Feed themselves with a spoon. Drink from a cup with little spilling. Suck from a straw. Begin to chew food with mouth closed.
Dressing. Take off hat. Take off socks. Take off shoes when laces are undone. Unzip large zippers.
Grooming. Enjoy trying to brush teeth. Wash and dry hands with help.
Household. Help with simple household tasks (e.g., wipe front of dishwasher with cloth). Push and pull doors open and shut.
Eating. Hold a spoon correctly with palm of hand tilted upward. Eat an entire meal using a spoon with minimal spilling. Begin to use a fork to spear food. Spread with a dull butter knife. Pour liquid from a small container.
Dressing. Put shoes on with help. Unbutton large buttons. Dress and undress with help.
Grooming. Brush teeth with help. Dry hands independently. Help bathe themselves. Blow and wipe nose with help.
Household. Open and close doors, using knobs. Handle fragile items carefully. Help put things away.
Source: Parenting to Make a Difference: Your One- to Four-Year-Old, by Brenda Hussey-Gardner (VORT, 1992).
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. November 2008