Toddler Independence

by Kim Cameron-Smith

The toddler years are the “I DO IT!” years.  No longer a helpless baby, the toddler realizes he can pour things, open things, and even walk away from us (sometimes in a crowded mall . . . ).   He will often want to do these things when it’s either unsafe or imprudent.

These bundles of energy are still too young to assess their abilities or most dangers.  He looks at the pitcher of juice — all 64 ounces of it — and at his favorite cup.  He wants to see if he can get the juice into that cup.  He really, really wants to see if he can get that juice into that cup.  We know what’ll happen if he tries to do it himself:  Not only will we have a juice puddle to clean up, but our toddler will be in a puddle of tears.

Helping our toddlers become increasingly independent is a necessary balancing act.  We don’t want to get our child stuck in some kind of dependence quicksand, but we also don’t want to throw her into an independence “deep end”.   Either extreme is unhealthy for her and damaging to the parent-child bond.

Here are a few suggestions to ponder as you manage toddler independence:

1) Don’t break the will; respect it:  Toddlers are often accused of being “willful” when they are asserting their independence.  Dr. Popcak has a fascinating discussion on the Catholic view of the human will in Parenting With Grace.  Some Protestant parent educators view the infant as evil and corrupt, and the will oppressed by the devil.  They believe we must break or suppress the child’s will, so they’re supportive of strategies that will basically crush the child’s will in an effort to save her soul.

Catholics believe that the will must be respected.  We need to teach and guide the will, but we must never “break it”.   To attempt to break, suppress, or crush the will is a violation of the child’s human dignity.  Yes, toddlers can throw tantrums and wag their fingers at us when they don’t get what they want.  But this isn’t evidence of an oppressed will; it’s just her misguided way of getting her needs met.  What is it she really needs?  Teaching her how to express her needs appropriately, with a supportive and loving tone of voice, is more fruitful than punishing her.  The first step in teaching her how to communicate her thoughts with decorum and love is to communicate with her in the same way.

2)  Independence, but at the toddler’s pace:  I like Dr. Sears’s suggestion that we let our toddler take the initiative to separate from us, rather than us from her.   Last week we were at our usual homeschooling park day.  Several families get together and the kid play while the parents chat.  Lydia (age two) always stays right on my lap, never venturing off the blanket.  She’s my “cling-on” – always on me, touching me, or sitting right next to me.  Even while we sleep, she sleeps with one leg on me.

Well, last week Lydia, wearing her favorite super-twirly purple tutu, began to venture off.  First she walked about 5 steps toward a tree, then turned around and ran back to my arms.  I welcomed her back.  Then off she went again, this time a little farther.  I didn’t make a big deal of it.  I just waved to her and blew kisses as she took those steps.  I continued talking to a friend calmly while watching Lydia explore the grass between the blanket and tree.  By the end of our play time, she was running to the tree and back (about 20 feet away) and jumping into my arms.

3)  Make her environment more toddler accessible:  Avoid the frustrations if at all possible.  Next time, put the juice in a small pitcher that your toddler can pour himself.  (I found a darling enamelware pitcher at Ikea for $6 – it’s a perfect size for a toddler.)  It might take a few tries, but eventually those little hands will be able to pour the juice.  Or don’t put the juice on the table.  Does she want to dress herself?  Buy shoes she can put on herself (without ties), roomy shirts, and elastic-waist pants.  The clothes may be on backwards, but who cares! 

My children are required to help with chores (at least that’s the theory), so I want to include my toddler.  She loves to sweep, but when she wields the broom, the back end is a dangerous weapon.  By giving her an appropriate tool — a Lydia-sized broom and dustpan– I’m making her environment more safe, avoiding toddler tantrums, and giving her an opportunity to practice industry along with her older siblings. 

4)  Encourage self-reliance but with love:  My mother lion instinct makes me want to rush in and rescue my babies the minute they’re in distress.  While it’s painful in many ways (and inconvenient), sometimes I have to step back and let my children navigate their way out of trouble.  Whether it’s figuring out how to get a ball out of a plastic castle, putting on her coat, or finding her way to me from the bathroom, I can call out to her with my familiar voice cheering her on to success.  When I sense the moment of independence has passed and I’m now dealing with a frightened toddler needing a hug, finally I can step in.

5)  Help your toddler trust other adults:  Whether relatives, extended family, or trusted friends, I try to encourage my toddlers to trust and depend upon other adults as they get older.  I would never require my children to stay with a stranger if they were upset or distressed.  My goal is to help them feel genuinely safe before I leave them in another person’s care.  Otherwise, I may lose their trust and may make them even more fearful of allowing new people to care for them. 

We had a mother’s helper for a while who was real treasure.  She was very creative and always brought games or crafts for the kids to do.  Dominic was a toddler and very guarded with strangers.  However, Erica coming over meant fun was in the air and Dominic was ready for her!  She would take Dominic on adventures around the neighborhood and after a while Dominic adored her and felt very safe in her care.  At first I stayed in the house while she cared for the children, but eventually I was able to leave for extended periods without a single tear in the house.  Too bad teenagers grow up and go off to college!

When toddlers who live in a safe, gentle, attached environment are given increased opportunities for independence, the bumps and lumps of toddlerhood are minimized.  We can allow these little cuties to make more and more choices as they grow in maturity and they will take their independence naturally.  There may be some spilled juice on the road to toddler independence, but there are far more laughs!

Photo credits ( Robert Cumming (boy on fence); Eileen Hart (girl putting on shoes)