"I Can Do It!"

By Angela Hynes

Does your toddler seem to be fighting for his independence? When he demands to “do it myself,” he’s just obeying his natural instincts, says Nancy Schulman, director of 92nd Street Nursery School in New York and co-author of Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years.

Feeling capable of taking care of themselves gives kids confidence as they journey through childhood and throughout life. The child who goes off to school—or into any environment unaccompanied by a parent—and functions well because she has confidence is just happier, according to Ellen Birnbaum, Associate Director of 92nd Street Nursery School and the book’s co-author. “And confident children come from families where the right kind of independence is stressed,” she says. “You simply can’t minimize the importance of self-help and independence.” Schulman agrees. “It has become crystal clear to us that children who have expectations that they will clean up their toys, take care of their bathroom needs, put on or take off their clothes, and do something helpful around the house are the ones who seem to thrive at school the most,” she says. “They feel very sure of themselves when they can do these things.”

Remember, it’s all new to them
The simplest of tasks is a major undertaking for toddlers. As adults, we often don’t realize how complicated basic skills are to our little ones.

At the 92nd Street Nursery School’s movement class, the children have to take off their socks and shoes and then put them back on afterward. Schulman says the range goes from the determined child who insists on doing every part of this himself to the one sitting with her feet stuck out looking completely helpless. “To that child you say, ‘Okay, socks are hard. Let me help you,’” says Schulman. ‘“I’ll put the sock on your toes and you pull it up yourself.’

You put the shoes in front of her so she can see which foot goes into which shoe.” Any task needs to be broken down into steps, and most importantly, you can’t rush toddlers and expect them to master a self-help skill the fi rst time they try. You also need to help them by being realistic about their capabilities. Birnbaum reports that at a recent class, one little girl had on very delicate, lacy socks that were impossible for her to handle. “It was frustrating for both of us,” she says, “because she wasn’t wearing clothing that supported her independence.”