Miss or Mister Independent
When children are babies, they are completely dependent on their parents for everything. As babies grow into toddlers, they become interested in exploring their world and doing things for themselves. This is a normal part of child development.
Between the ages of 18 months and three years, children begin to assert their independence by walking away from their mother, picking which toy to play with, and making choices about what they like to wear, to eat, etc. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson points out it is critical that for parents to allow their children at this stage (autonomy vs. shame/doubt) to explore the limits of their abilities within an encouraging environment that is tolerant of failure. For example, rather than dressing a child, a wise parent starts allowing and encouraging a child to practice dressing themselves. From a preschool point of view, we call these independence tasks “self-help skills.”
Allowing a preschooler to practice doing things for themselves can be time-consuming and messy. Sometimes a child’s budding independence can make parents feel winsome about “our baby” growing up and not seeming to need us as much. It is tempting for parents to just swoop in and do for young children. Resist this urge.
Wise parents recognize their role in equipping their children with life skills AND a personal sense of their competence. Independence often goes hand in hand with self-confidence. This is why it is important to let children try things for themselves.
Here are our suggestions:
Understand what is age-appropriate: When teaching a child self-care skills, parents first need to know what can be typically expected of a young child. Here’s a helpful resource packed with great tips for parents: Teaching Your Child to Become Independent with Daily Routines
Let your child make mistakes: “Letting kids make mistakes and being there to boost their spirits, so they keep trying is important,” says Sue Adair, director of education and quality assurance for The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development. “If a child wants to learn how to make a sandwich, show him or her how; then set up the ingredients and let him or her give it a try. ”Adair admits that you’re likely in for a bit of a mess, but your child can help clean up, however imperfectly, after he’s done crafting his sandwich. Instead of pointing out every dropped crumb or sticky knife-handle, Adair suggests parents “avoid any criticism that could discourage him or her from trying again. If you step in to assist, the child may be discouraged and never try it again.”
Encourage effort and persistence: When your child is trying something new, you can nearly guarantee their success by praising their efforts. This encourages persistence. Persistence on a difficult task is a valuable skill for a child to learn. Children can get easily frustrated, but by cheering on their efforts, children learn that obstacles can be overcome. Children need to learn patience as they learn to do something new, and parents need to be patient as they encourage their children.