"I Can Do It!"

Put first things first
Schulman and Birnbaum tell the story of seeing a 4-year-old being spoon-fed yogurt by a caregiver prior to his taking a tennis lesson. “There’s something terribly backward about this picture,” says Schulman.

Children need to learn how to take care of their fundamental needs first and foremost—and certainly before they take violin, art, computer or foreign language lessons. “They can take up tennis or soccer when they are 8 or 9,” says Birnbaum. “A toddler should work on becoming accomplished in buttoning, zippering and tying!”

Parents, of course, want the best start in life for their children, but learning “the basic skills of being able to go to the bathroom, wash their hands and pull up their clothes by themselves are what will really help them be successful in the world outside of their family,” says Schulman.

Make it a family affair
“Little children are very egocentric, but they still need to see themselves as part of a whole,” Birnbaum explains. Let them pitch in with the rest of family and take some responsibility for their own things. They really enjoy being part of the team, whether it’s tidying up or getting ready to go out. Praise them by saying, “We’re going to get there on time because we all got our coats on and went out the door.”

That makes them feel good, says Birnbaum. Toddlers also love to participate in making family meals. They can tear lettuce, mix things, even put together a sandwich. They like to assert themselves and make choices, so giving them an either/or meal option also helps foster feelings of independence. Make sure that the entire family is onboard. When there are older siblings, sometimes there’s a tendency to treat the youngest child as the baby and to want to do everything for her.