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.”
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.
Keep raising the bar
Toddlers go through tremendous growth spurts physically, emotionally and intellectually about every six months, so changes happen really quickly at this age. Before you know it, they are ready to take on new responsibilities. They’ll often let you know by saying something like “I want to do it!” They’re going to test you and try to exert their independence.
It’s important that you encourage them by matching where they are in terms of what you provide for them and what you expect of them. “If you are doing the same thing and having the same expectations that you did six months ago, then you’re not keeping up with the child,” says Schulman. As they develop more skills and abilities, you need to start raising the bar and helping them learn to do more things independently.
Times of transition can be difficult for toddlers, so spell out what you expect of them. A new bedroom regimen might be: “First you put away your toys, then you eat dinner, then you have story time, then you brush your teeth and go to bed.” Following a set routine like this helps the child feel secure and gives him a framework in which to safely exert his independence.
Get comfortable with your new role
A child’s growing independence can be tough for moms and dads. Transitioning from the parent of a helpless infant to the parent of a challenging, independent little person is hard for many, and it happens in a relatively short time. “There’s so much about caring for a child’s physical needs that’s very loving,” says Birnbaum. “Those gestures of feeding and dressing a baby become an extension of your love, and you think it’s part of your job to do these things for them.”
Then they become toddlers and are walking around touching everything and putting themselves in danger quite often. They also demand what they want when they want it. As a parent, you have a natural tendency toward protecting them and trying to minimize their frustration.
But you need to step back because you won’t know what they’re capable of until you make that shift and start letting them do things for themselves. If you don’t do this in the toddler phase, “what you get is a child who hasn’t acquired self-help skills and has no resilience,” says Birnbaum. Your role really has to change at this time to cheerleader as you encourage them to be more independent human beings.
There’s a reason blankets or pacifiers are called security objects. “They help children feel safe,” says Nancy Schulman. “It’s a dependency that calms and soothes them when they’re feeling anxious, stressed or tired.” If possible, break the dependency before the child starts preschool; being separated from mom is already stressful without the double whammy of leaving his blankie, too. There will be a window of opportunity. If you miss it, your child can become overly dependent.
1. Take it slowly, just as you did when you weaned him off the breast. If it’s a bottle, get it down to one a day, then eventually none.
2. Limit where and how often the item can be used. For example, the stuffed toy can’t leave home; the sippy cup is used only in the dining room.
3. If leaving a blanket is traumatic for your tot, cut off a corner or take a picture of it that he can take with him.
4. Don’t take away security items during a major change, such as a move to a new home or the arrival of a new baby.
5. As he grows, find some other source of comfort like snuggling on your lap or using language to discover his feelings.
6. Give him incentives like “We can do this now because you’re not a baby anymore.” Remind him of all the positive things about getting older.
7. Maintain your own resolve. Hearing your child weeping for his bottle or pacifier can break your heart and prompt you to give in to him.
Going it alone
While your toddler might assert his independence by insisting on choosing what he eats or wears, he’s less likely to ask to be toilet trained—you need to initiate that idea. “I think between 2 1⁄2 and 3 is a good time to start,” says Ellen Birnbaum.
The process also extends to your child being able to pull his pants up and down, wipe himself, flush and wash his hands. You can help him by dressing him in pants with elastic waistbands rather than belts or buttons so he can get them off easily and quickly.
Once he can use the potty, he’s old enough to wipe himself. Teach him to use more paper until he’s clean. Initially, some kids might do better with a baby wipe. Facilitate hand washing with sleeves that can be pushed up and not get wet, and with a stepstool that lets him reach the sink. Be sure he uses soap and cleanses thoroughly by making it fun: Teach him to wash for the duration of a short song.
Angela Hynes is an independent writer based in Los Angeles.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TODDLER MAGAZINE, WINTER ‘08
Expert tips for cultivating your tot’s independence.