For those of you with toddlers, I know you’ve all been there. You’ve watched as your kid insists on doing things that are done much quicker, safer, and better when you do them. Most toddlers want to be independent and I believe it’s critical that we foster and encourage that independent spirit.
For one, I think it’s crucial that kids are confident in their abilities to take care of themselves. Hopefully by the time they’re adults, they have little anxiety about setting out on their own because they’ll be ready. Secondly, it makes things easier on us after the initial learning curve because there are less things we have to do for them. The seeds I sowed when my son was only a year or two old have allowed me to reap wonderful benefits now that I have two children. I no longer have to get my son dressed, clean his room, make his bed, or even set out his clothes. He is perfectly capable of doing these things on his own and enjoys the freedom it gives him.
Amidst the sowing and reaping of independent victories we have reached a new milestone; my son made his own eggs for breakfast today. Before you freak out and wonder how in the world this crazy mom lets her toddler cook on the stove, let me assure you I was very close by but I never had to intervene.
I had offered to cook him eggs while I was making some for myself and his sister. He said he didn’t want any. I told him this was his last chance if he wanted eggs for breakfast and he was too wrapped up in what he was playing with to care. Inevitably, 10 minutes later he came in the kitchen asking for eggs. I told him I was done cooking and maybe next time he would eat when it was time to eat (this is a huge problem with this kid and natural consequences are the only thing that works). So I told him he could wait until it was snack time or he could make the eggs himself. Be careful the choices you offer to your toddlers.
He walked right over to the cupboard and pulled out a pan. Then he got out his stepping stool and set it up in front of the stove. He placed the pan on the stove and then walked over to the fridge where he found the eggs. He grabbed a bowl and a fork from the other cupboard and set up his cooking station next to the stove. He cracked the eggs in the bowl, scrambled them with his fork and sprayed the pan with cooking spray. Then he looked at me longingly and said, “Mommy, can you make the fire come on?” At first I was hesitant but he has had lots of experience helping me cook and is very cautious when it comes to the flames on our gas range. I was confident that he was careful enough to handle this task on his own. So I turned the burner on very low. He proceeded to dump the scrambled eggs into the pan. He sprinkled them with salt and then took a spatula and began to stir and flip the eggs. All the while I watched in near disbelief at his capability and cautiousness. I knew he could do most of those things individually but to watch him do all of them in sequence to accomplish something as complicated as cooking his own breakfast about floored me.
When he saw the eggs were no longer wet he said, “They’re done! Mommy, can you turn the fire off?” So I turned the stove off and quietly watched him scoop the eggs out onto his plate. He climbed down his stepping stool and took his plate and fork to the table. Then he got out a cup and poured himself a glass of milk. He sat down to reap the rewards of his great accomplishment.
I realize that not all three-year-olds are the same and there are probably lots of kids who are even more independent than my son and others that are not quite there yet. Please don’t assume that I am tooting my own horn about how independent my son is. What I’m trying to get across here is that our kids are so much more capable than we assume they are sometimes. If we don’t allow them to develop their skills in a safe environment their confidence will shrink and we will have to deal with the aftermath of a child who cannot do anything for himself.
Here are 6 tips to help you encourage independence in your toddler.
1. Duct tape yourself to your seat
In the book Duct Tape Parenting by Vicki Hoefle she uses the greatest analogy to help us to refrain from doing everything for our kids. She advises us to stay where we are when our kids are doing something hard and to use duct tape if we have to. Of course, use common sense. I would never have allowed my son to cook his own eggs for the first time while I sat in front of the TV, duct taped to the couch. It’s ok to supervise and observe our children, especially in the beginning stages of learning to do something new. The point is to not rush in and do it for them at the first sign of struggle. Allow them to try, many times if necessary, and observe how they’re feeling about their progress. If they start to get frustrated, move onto the next tip.
2. Offer help when needed but don’t do it for them
When my son was learning how to put his own shirt on he had a hard time figuring out how to get the picture on his shirt in the front. While it’s much quicker for me to put his shirt on for him, I duct taped myself to where I was and would wait to see if he was going to figure it out today or if I might need to offer some help. Most of the time he would persist until he got it. Other days, he would be ornery or tired and reach his breaking point much sooner. When I saw those signs of frustration show up on his face and in his grunting voice I would simply say, “Would you like some help?” Sometimes he would feel determined and say, “No I can do it.” Other times he would say, “Yeah,” and I would spin his shirt around the right way showing him where the picture is and that it goes in the front. He quickly picked it up and now I never have to help him get dressed. We have to take the time to teach our children after evaluating what they already know.
3. Once a task has been mastered, expect it from them
After my son learned to make his own bed he felt so big. He would say, “I am so big I can make my own bed all by myself!” But after the sense of accomplishment wore off he had days that he didn’t want to make his bed. I would sympathize and tell him that sometimes I didn’t want to make my bed either but that I do it because it makes my room look nice and clean and I feel better when my room is clean. He is now in the habit of making his bed and if he forgets, usually all I have to say is, “I made my bed did you make yours?” Usually he’ll stop to think and then run in and quickly pull his covers up. Don’t regress into doing the things they used to do on their own just because it’s faster or easier. Once they master something it is their domain now.
4.Take their lead and offer lots of praise and encouragement
Most of the time you’ll know when your child is ready to do a certain task on her own because she will tell you. Even if you don’t think she’s ready, just sit back and observe; she might surprise you. If your child is reluctant to try new things, suggest something you feel he is ready to try and offer lots of encouragement. Don’t force your child to do anything on his/her own but rather offer encouragement and lots of teaching in the beginning. Just like when you feel great after doing something that seemed hard at first, so will your kids. Our motto is: I can do hard things. When my son was really frustrated trying to make his bed just right but wouldn’t let me help him I would just say, “Man, it’s a good thing you can do hard things. You’ll get it buddy just keep working at it.”
5. Simplify the difficult tasks
Continuing on with the example of bed making, my son had a hard time because his bed was against the wall. Ideally, I would have moved it away from the wall but in my kids’ cracker box bedroom there was nowhere else to put it. One day, while he was struggling trying to line up his sheet and his blanket just right (despite the many times I tried to tell him it doesn’t have to be perfect) he just ripped the sheet off completely with a frustrated grunt. Then he went over and effortlessly pulled his blanket up to meet his pillow. He said, “That’s better.” He doesn’t want a sheet on his bed anymore, and that’s ok. Sometimes the details aren’t worth the effort.
This also encompasses the idea of making sure things are within your child’s reach and everything has a place. We lowered my son’s coat hooks, moved all of his clothes to the bottom couple of drawers in the dresser he shares with his baby sister, and bought him a little stool for everything else.
6. Plan for lots of extra time
I am perpetually tardy. To everything. So this was the hardest part for me. If I am running super late, this whole system falls apart. A while back my son was on a roll learning to snap and zip up his own pants. Some pants were easier than others but he always insisted on doing it himself. I remember agonizingly waiting and checking the clock constantly while he struggled to snap his pants. Every minute or two I would ask if he needed help because we were in a big hurry and he would insist he could do it. One day we were actually 15 minutes later than normal to church because he insisted on buttoning his own shirt, without help. I have learned, the hard way, that he needs almost as much time as I do to get ready. So I plan for it. It makes it easier on everyone and I don’t feel like I have to jump in and do things for him when we’re running late.
If you make the commitment to help your child learn and grow at his/her own pace, despite how difficult it might be in the beginning, I promise you will thank yourself down the road.