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How to build independence in toddlers

Dinusha Manjarie Wickremesekera

One of the things that you would notice about your child is how they will want to do things for and by themselves. From holding his / her milk bottle to choosing a favourite toy – deciding that they want you to carry them and making sure that you do. 

The goal for independence is evident from a young age. Independence in this instance can be defined as “doing things for oneself” like putting on my shoes, eating by myself, deciding on what to wear – are a few examples of what we do by ourselves as adults and we must as parents supports a child to do. When independent in this sense a toddler decides for himself or herself what he would like to do, and does it on his / her own outside of the influence or control of another. Until they begin to walk they cannot move around independent of help – once they are walking they are ready to let go of your supporting hand and ran off where they decide to go. You can see this with eating as well … they are initially unable to feed themselves but once they are able to improve the control of movement of their hands and arms, and hand eye coordination our young children are very keen to grab the spoon and eat by themselves – initially spilling everywhere but them mastering the feeding process well.  

So being independent is a mark of having developed skills, like tying their own shoelace, deciding what they would like to eat at a restaurant. Doing things by themselves gives our children a sense of accomplishment and improves their sense of self and self-esteem and there is a little something in it for parents as well. Parents have one less task to do for the child, but of course another kind of task would be added. 

The whole process of child development could be understood in this way – a child learning how to do things by himself / herself, or making decisions on what they would like to do. As a parent, you are supporting this process. You would know that the child is going to make a big mess with his / her food, and maybe eat less then what is served, but you would give him the spoon to feed herself or himself. You just supported your child’s developing of independence. You would hear yourself say … they are growing up so fast!  

It will be frustrating for the child, because a skill takes time to master and for you too patience is key because you know that this would take less time if you do it … but this is a very important moment because your child’s is going to master this … and this is going to increase his/ her sense of self and self-esteem.  These are going to be the first triumphant moments of “I did it!” for your child.  

On an emotionally level too, as your child grows up he would venture out a little further from you. Spend longer periods of time with others and always comes back to you. A confident child, independent in exploring his / her environment – knowing that you are always there to support will be more resilient. This is an important learning as well because soon by 3 years of age your child/ren will start preschool. In preschool she / he would spend more time away from you and this time would progressively increase.  

You can as a parent nurture this process …. Vygotsky advised … support the learning of a tasks and then slowly progressively remove the support and watch as they master offering assistance as needed. Here are some ways you can do this.

Set predictable routines - routines helps predict what happens next and repeated doing of the same thing creates habits – consistency and knowing what to expect makes a child feel safe. So telling your child what to expect and assigning small tasks initially helps to internalize how to do things. Providing opportunities for your child to do things initially under your guidance helps him / her to do it by himself or herself. The relationship you develop with your child during these young years will mark the nature of your relationship even in their teenage and adulthood. Your relationship will also develop as you set rules, stick to them with some flexibility to one of cooperation. It is important to pick your battles because there would be push back to set rules.  

Let your child choose – which book to read which movie to watch. It seems small but with this your child is developing critical thinking skills. Offering a choice allows you as the parent to set some boundaries by determining for example appropriate clothes to wear – to school or to a party, but your child decide which particular dress within your guidelines.    

Mistakes are ok – we all learnt through trial and error – we just have to ensure that they are safe. You support your child as he / she becomes able to do things independently, but so does their mistakes – so let them happen – it supports the process of mastery or getting better at doing things. Bouncing back develops resilience - Your own as a parent as well as your child.    Praise appropriate and good behaviors, model them – children will learn through imitation. Reflect on inappropriate behaviors and which behaviors to replace this with your child so that he / she will understand what has gone weary and how to correct them.    

Let your child express himself / herself – his / her likes and dislikes their fears and their joys. Sharing opinions, listening to theirs will develop your relationship with your child as well as his sense of self-esteem and sense of self.  

Play so important in this – free play, imaginary play – structured play, playing with you, playing by themselves offers 

Communication is key to nurturing independence and safety. I hope you this was of value to you.

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