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Raising a Can-Do Kid

It's 8:30 in the morning. We have three minutes before the school bus arrives to pick up my older daughters on the corner. Meg, my 2-year-old, has plunked herself down by the front door with her shoes on the wrong feet and is determinedly trying to buckle them. Herself.

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.