It all started when she woke up and wanted to pick her own clothes: a short-sleeved dress and sandals (in December). We compromised by adding thick tights and a sweater. But then she insisted on standing on the counter to choose her breakfast, pouring her own cereal and milk (a small enough mess), and doing her own hair.
And now the shoes. Sure, I could reach down and finish the job myself in a few seconds, but I know that a toddler thwarted is not a pretty sight. So I take a deep breath. Waiting for her may test my sanity, but it's probably the best way to go for both of us.
Such little acts of autonomy are how kids learn to do things for themselves, and they're the foundation on which children eventually grow into self-sufficient, confident adults. But independence isn't built in a day. How to nurture and support your can-do kid, every step of the way:
Birth to Age 1: Babe in the Woods
Your Child's Job: Figure out who you are, who she is, what that green thing does
Your Job: Help her feel safe and smart
Feeding a baby when she's hungry, cuddling her, and keeping her clean and comfortable are essential to her well-being. But by responding to your infant, you're also giving her the building blocks of confidence. "Security leads to autonomy," says Warren Umansky, Ph.D., coauthor of Young Children With Special Needs. "Kids with a predictable environment are more willing to take chances later on. They recognize that they can always come back for love and encouragement." So by doing your best to figure out what your baby is feeling (is she hungry, bored, tired?), you're gradually helping her understand her own needs -- and, down the road, meet those needs herself.
It's never too soon to applaud your child's small victories. "When your baby does something on her own -- like reach for a toy -- and you react with enthusiasm, that's the first step toward independence," says Charles Smith, Ph.D., professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, KS. "She realizes that doing things on her own feels good and that it pleases you too." Of course, you don't have to bring out the trumpets every time your baby jingles her rattle, but expressing delight in her little accomplishments encourages her to try to succeed again and again.
Mary Arrigo last wrote about what fascinates babies for PARENTING's May 2001 issue.
Age 1Wide-eyed Wanderer
Your Child's Job: Enlarge his universe
Your Job: Put perfection on hold
A 1-year-old is just realizing that he's a separate person from you and that there's a whole world waiting to be conquered. Striking a balance between his need to investigate and your need to keep some semblance of order -- not to mention safety -- can take constant negotiation.
Age 2font face="text5">Insistent Doer
Your Child's Job: Convince you she can handle anything
Your Job: Convince her you need to stand nearby
Two-year-olds are like yo-yos: They whirl off on their own one minute and then rush back to the safety of your arms the next. Though your toddler wants to be independent from you, let's face it, it can be a scary world. "There's a sudden shift in parenting a child this age," says Linda Wagener, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, CA. "You still have to nurture and respond but also must start to hand over some of the control, within reason."
Ages 3 and 4Strong-willed Explorer
Your Child's Job: Find out just how much he can do
Your Job: Encourage him, but comfort him when it's tough
Preschoolers are getting pretty good at mastering small skills, and they need you to acknowledge this. "Parents should be like scaffolding," says Wagener. "You're there to offer support but aren't doing whole tasks for your child. As he gets older, you slowly disassemble the scaffolding until he's really able to do things all on his own."
Ages 5 to 8Confident Learner
Your Child's Job: Succeed on the front lines -- school
Your Job: Be a good backup
Schoolkids are on their own for much of the day. But while their social radius is expanding, they need a strong safety net.
Ages 8 and UpAssertive Individual
Your Child's Job: Act as if he's all grown up
Your Job: Remember that he needs his space
The teen years are coming soon: a whole new era of independence. Kids this age are developing more opinions about the world and their place in it. It's a crucial time for you to pay attention but at the same time allow your child to explore.
Helping our children succeed as responsible, self-sufficient people is a parenting priority we all strive for -- even if we sometimes forget it on hectic mornings when we're rushing out of the house. I try to remember this as I wrangle through each routine of the day with my own kids. On the morning that started so full of struggles, we actually did manage to make the bus. We decided that if I let Meg finish buckling her shoes herself (yes, on the wrong feet), she'd let me help her with her coat. The negotiations didn't stop there that day, but I'm glad for them. They're helping my daughter grow into the strong, confident girl -- and eventual woman -- I want her to be.