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Raising An Independent Child

I had promised my husband breakfast in bed on his birthday, and our daughter, Annelise, 4, wanted to help. Actually, she wanted to do more than just help. From the first egg cracked to the last drop of juice poured, she insisted on doing everything herself. So Annelise cracked eggs while I hovered anxiously in the background, biting my tongue when she wanted to make the French toast with old English muffins instead of bread, and biting my nails as she tottered atop a stool so she could reach the counter. By the time she was through, it was almost lunchtime. But it was worth the wait, the mess, and even the eggshells in the maple syrup to see Annelise's face when she proudly told her father, "I did it myself."

I don't always have the time or patience to let my daughter prepare meals, but on that morning I realized that her desire to commandeer breakfast was a signal of her burgeoning autonomy. And as she reduced our kitchen to an eggy shambles, I realized also that cultivating a child's independence begins with the willingness to give up a certain amount of control.

This isn't always easy, but the payoff can be enormous: confident, competent, and resourceful children. When kids are equipped to tackle new challenges  -- from foreign foods to the first day of playgroup  -- they're less apt to rely on others for entertainment and more likely to experiment with different problem-solving techniques, a tendency that will serve them well throughout their lives.

"Research suggests that children who are trained to be independent early on have a greater desire to achieve in school," says Karen Berberian, Ph.D., a child psychologist at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, in Philadelphia. "The traits that characterize a self-sufficient child  -- a willingness to explore freely, the ability to feel good about accomplishments  -- are the same ones that characterize a receptive learner."

Here's how to know when your child is making a plea for greater autonomy, and what you can do to nurture it.

Debra Kent is a journalist and the founder of WonderLab, a children's science museum in Bloomington, IN.

Birth to Age 1

Look Away

The march toward independence begins very early. Even a newborn shows glimmers of self-determination when she turns away from your adoring stare, a behavior known as "gaze aversion." Infants break eye contact when they feel overstimulated, says pediatrician Bill Sammons, M.D., author of I Wanna Do It Myself: From Baby to Toddler  -- A Radical Three-Tiered Approach to Helping Your Child Achieve Independence. It's one of their earliest attempts to control their surroundings  -- one minute Mommy is in view, the next minute she's out.

Once you recognize this as a kind of bid for autonomy, says Dr. Sammons, you can respond in ways that actually reinforce your infant's sense of self-reliance. Rather than pursuing eye contact, let her look away so she can feel some power, however limited.

Be There

In the early months, an infant starts to actively and intentionally change her environment. She cries and Mommy appears, smiles and Daddy smiles back, throws a toy to the floor and her big sister picks it up. This may seem like the opposite of self-reliant behavior, but as long as you continue to respond positively and lovingly to the cries, smiles, and jettisoned toys, you reinforce your child's perception that she has the ability to affect the world. This perception forms the bedrock of self-esteem  -- a vital component of self-reliance, notes Barbara Polland, Ph.D., a professor of child development at California State University, Northridge, and author of The Parenting Challenge.

Accept Rejection

Infants make another bid for control when they turn away from the breast, bottle, or oncoming spoonful of rice cereal. As every pureed-pea-spattered parent of a 6-month-old knows, it's supremely frustrating to confront pursed lips at feeding time. But it's worse to insist that your child eat. Before a baby can walk or crawl, this is one of the few effective means he has of expressing volition. "Parents need to respect a child's dignity by not imposing the spoon," says Polland. "Your responsibility is to provide a healthy diet, not to make him eat."

Let Her Soothe Herself

Your baby takes an early but giant step toward independence when she learns to put herself to sleep. You can encourage the habit at around 6 months, an age when the stomach holds enough food to keep a baby satisfied for most, if not all, of the night. So when she's feeding with less frequency, she may be ready to head alone  -- and awake  -- into the crib.

"Babies have a much greater ability to calm themselves than most people realize," says Dr. Sammons. So if your baby has grown used to falling asleep on your lap or shoulder or while having a bottle, many experts think it's wise to begin weaning her (and yourself) of that dependence now. The eventual goal, they say, is for the baby to be placed in the crib before she's asleep and drift off on her own.

The value of this is more than just a calm bedtime. In learning to snooze solo, your baby learns to comfort herself without your help (or a bottle's), demonstrating a significant degree of self-reliance.


Take "No!" For An Answer

The toddler years are a time of almost unceasing exploration as accelerated mobility and major muscle development converge with a profound curiosity about the world. And as anyone who has spent dinnertime hoisting a 2-year-old in and out (and in and out) of her high chair can attest, even a baby who has been compliant and relatively portable is suddenly squirmy and recalcitrant. Often, an adamant "No!" is a toddler's knee-jerk response to every question.

It's enough to make you long for the days when all she could do was lie on her back and gurgle. But what seems like defiance is really just experimentation with independence.

"Toddlerhood is truly a child's first adolescence," says Arlene Eisenberg, coauthor of What to Expect the Toddler Years. "It's a period when kids desperately want to separate from their parents, which is why they're constantly insisting, ‘No!' and ‘Me do it!'"

Tough as it might be, don't respond in kind. You'll only end up in a battle that neither of you will win. If the toddler's safety or health isn't involved, sometimes you should just give in and let him call the shots. He'll get a taste of self-determination and you'll avoid a pointless shouting match. If you do override his veto, do so in a very calm, straightforward, polite manner: "Yes, I am going to change your diaper right now. I know you don't like to lie still, but it won't take long. Please stop squirming." This way you acknowledge his objection without caving in to it.

Foster Freedom With Rules

Ironically, another way to encourage independence in toddlers is by setting firm limits. Independence is rooted in confidence, and nothing threatens a child's confidence like fuzzy boundaries, says Dr. Sammons. Limits give children a sense of stability and security; they know where they stand and they know who's boss.

At this age, most rules are safety-related  -- no standing in the high chair, for instance, or playing with electrical plugs. If a rule is broken, distraction may work in the short term, but it is hardly instructive, notes Dr. Sammons. And negotiation may convey that rules are up for debate. Instead, physically remove the child from the dangerous activity while firmly stating the rule: "No, you are not allowed to touch the outlet." A toddler's growing sense of independence can be scary; ultimately she'll find it comforting to be reminded that, regardless of how she may feel, she's really not in charge.

Leave Him Alone

As babies grow, so do their attention spans. By 18 months or 2 years, most are capable of amusing themselves for brief periods of time without you. Cultivate this ability. When you see your child absorbed in an activity, quietly start your own  -- reading the paper, paying bills, folding laundry. Gradually expand the length of time over several days until you've reached 10 or 15 minutes. If your child fusses, make sure he's okay, but stall a bit before responding. Then offer praise after he's happily played alone.

Encourage Exploration

An integral part of self-reliance is the ability to think for yourself, and one way to promote this is to encourage curiosity about surroundings. Point out odd, interesting, or even mundane phenomena in your neighborhood: a line of ants marching along a crease in the sidewalk; a hummingbird at the feeder; a neighbor's cat slinking through your yard. At its most basic level, this teaches your child to be observant and find the world entertaining. But it also fosters independent thinking: If you teach your child to notice things, the direct result is self-generated inquiry. "Doggie  -- woof, woof!" leads directly to "Why do doggies say woof?" to "I wonder why dogs bark?"

Promote The Potty

Somewhere between 2 and 3 years, kids may add potty training to their list of milestones. It's not only a significant sign of autonomy; it's a critical way to gain independence.

That's why it may be helpful to think of toilet training as a project you're working on together  -- why scolding and shaming are so counterproductive. Your child's just as eager to succeed at this difficult, grown-up task as you are, so be encouraging but avoid pressure. Trying to force potty training before a child is ready can lead to frequent accidents and a feeling of failure. Your goal is to make this move away from dependence as painless and positive as possible.

The first step might be to help him recognize what it feels like to have to go to the bathroom. This, of course, is the keystone to leaving diapers behind and may be the aspect of toilet training that requires the greatest development of self-reliance.

Even kids already out of diapers might need help remembering when it's time to go. They may become so engrossed in an activity that they forget to notice until it's too late, and the ensuing accidents can be embarrassing setbacks. Your gentle reminder  -- "It's been a while since you used the toilet. Do you feel like you have to go?"  -- won't compromise his new independence.

Ages 3 and 4

Give Choices

The child who once relied on you to wash her hands, choose her clothes, and lift her from her car seat is, by her third birthday, astonishingly competent. She can take care of many of her basic needs, from fixing a snack to buttoning her shirt. Above all, she's ready to help make decisions, which is why she may respond so violently when she feels powerless. Tantrums aren't uncommon; nor is saying "I hate you!"

The best way to avoid these kinds of episodes, most experts agree, is to give kids the sense they're involved in the decision-making process. Whether it's a choice between the blue sweatshirt and the red cardigan or the backyard versus the playground, offering options helps kids this age feel more self-reliant and learn to weigh consequences.

While it may be faster and easier to decide for them, "if we don't start giving them choices now, we'll be sorry later," says Eisenberg. Eventually, they'll have to be able to make decisions without your help. And once you get into the habit of offering your child choices throughout the day, you'll notice that you'll also reduce conflicts and tantrums. Of course, only offer a choice if you like both answers.

Let Him Succeed

You'll also want to guide your child toward options that carry a higher-than-average likelihood of success, suggests Linda Dunlap, a professor of psychology and a developmental specialist at Marist College. "When a child experiences repeated failures," she says, "he'll wind up feeling discouraged." Let him try pouring his own juice, but from a small, unbreakable container rather than a big pitcher, or opt for sneakers with Velcro rather than laces.

One good way to foster a sense of accomplishment is to have your child help with household chores. "Kids who are capable of carrying a plate to the sink or helping sort clean clothes in the laundry bin are ready to pitch in around the house," says Polland.

Just remember to keep your expectations realistic. "It's fine to give kids opportunities to try new things, but not until they're ready to handle them," says Dunlap. Although a 4-year-old can't be expected to vacuum or do laundry, he can bring in the mail, water the plants, or sort his own socks.

Give Praise Where Praise Is Due

Support your child's new abilities with plenty of positive feedback. Most of us know enough not to disparage with unkind words, but even affectionate teasing can be shaming to a young child. A comment like "Just look at this table!" can be discouraging to a child who has just poured her own cereal and milk. "If children are frequently made to feel embarrassed by their attempts at exploration, they will eventually hesitate to try new things," says Berberian.

Face it: We say we want independent kids, but offering choices at lunch or letting them select their own clothes or fix breakfast takes time, energy, and patience.

But it's worth it. Because as children grow, so do the consequences of their actions, and today's French toast adventure is tomorrow's college entry exam. So my husband and I will gladly tolerate maple syrup on the walls if it means Annelise grows up to say "I did it myself" about feats even more impressive than making breakfast.