5 Gentle ways to raise an independent toddler

Independent children believe they are competent and capable of taking care of themselves. And, through practice and experience, they develop the skills to do just that.

There are many healthy qualities that flourish in an independent child :

  • They are internally motivated, finding their own reasons for pursuing goals and achievements;
  • They are self-satisfied – their sense of happiness and self-esteem are less dependent on other people; and
  • They become good decision makers as they’ve had the space to make choices and experience the consequences

But wait:

Independence doesn’t mean aloof and detached. Just because your toddler is quiet when you leave them to their own devices for 30 minutes doesn’t necessarily mean that they are forming a secure and healthy independence. No. Children must feel loved and secure whilst being given the attention, space and time to learn to do things for themselves.

Independence can’t be forced. It is a gift that is given intentionally and with care. Raising independent children is a parenting paradigm that affects how you treat your child from an early age. Infants are fully dependent, and rightly so. It is important that a newborn’s needs are met fully and immediately. Yet early on in a child’s growth, they will naturally shift their own focus from their primary caregiver (normally Mom) towards their own body and the world around them. This time (around toddlerhood) is when parents can really begin to provide them with the space, support and opportunity to develop their natural, self-driven independence.

Here are 5 actionable tips for nurturing your independent toddler:

1) Create a child-friendly “enabling” space

As soon as children begin to focus on their bodies and the world around them, they want nothing more than to explore. This is the beginning of independence. Our job as parents is simply to let them do this without getting in their way. We want to avoid inhibiting our toddlers as they move about, inspecting things with their hands (and mouth).

Shouting “no” and physically moving your toddler away from a TV or a glass table is frustrating their attempts to learn and experience the world in a self-motivated way; especially when this is happening every five minutes. I’ve been there. It’s no fun for either of you.

Instead, create a “yes” or “enabling” space. Do this by securing doors or stairs with a baby gate. You may choose to use a pen, but if you do make sure it’s as big as possible. You want to enable not limit them. Then remove all hazards from the room or area. The aim is to provide a space where your baby or toddler can roam freely, grabbing, chewing and climbing safely. There will be no need to yell “no” and they can just get on with it.

2) Doing it themselves

Toddlers have a natural and self-motivated desire to do things for themselves. Our job as parents isn’t to plant this seed but to allow it to grow safely and unimpeded. This is harder than it sounds. It takes time and patience.

Children are natural imitators. Initially, that’s how they learn. Make time and effort to demonstrate how you do things, eg, brushing your teeth or putting on clothes and shoes. Kids don’t need much verbal instruction at this stage. Simply show them, slowly and clearly.

Now here’s the hard part – allow them the time to do it themselves. Speaking from experience, this is a real challenge. Time is a precious commodity, parents are often in a rush, and the day can get pretty hectic. That said, the quickest way to nurture independence is to allow an extra 5 or 10 minutes here and there for your toddler to put on his own shoes or attempt to dress himself.

If you can make space for him to try to do it, especially in the early days when he really wants to, then you are providing an excellent opportunity for him to develop self-confidence, belief, and capabilities.

3) Make space for independence

Independence requires some freedom and space to be exercised. As parents, we can anticipate areas and times when our toddlers may want to give something a go. If we provide them with the tools and space to do this, then they can become practiced and confident.

If you go shopping with your toddler and an infant, a sit and stand stroller empowers your toddler. It gives her the freedom to walk when she wants to and to ride when she’s tired. This is far more enabling than being strapped into a regular stroller for hours.

Whilst potty training, provide a step and a potty seat that is really easy for him to use. If he wants to try, making it easy to do so means that he will.

A final way to make space is to allow her to get herself dressed. Not always or even regularly. But if you are planning on staying in the house all morning, then let her pick her clothes and attempt to put them on. This gives her the chance to choose for herself and give it a go. She’ll do it her way and will probably pick a funny looking outfit, but having exercised her choice in this way will feed her confidence.

4) Involve them in “work”

As adults, most of us view work and play as a dichotomy. Younger children don’t. For them, it’s one and the same. Doing chores and helping Mom or Dad with tasks is usually much more fun than playing with a toy. The key is to encourage them to regularly help with chores. Think through and make a list of all the chores they can help out with. Then get your child/ren to do them as you do. This fosters the natural feeling of satisfaction and pride at helping out. Beware: as much as we might feel the need to go back over the job our toddler has helped out with (to ensure it has been completed to our high standards), doing this can damage their self-confidence and ultimately their desire to be independent. So it’s important to choose tasks that you know your toddler is capable of completing well on their own so that they can enjoy the satisfaction of doing it right themselves.

5) Avoid rescuing

Of course, if a child is in danger or something is about to get broken, then we as parents will obviously intervene. What we are talking about here is when parents can’t stand the sight and sound of their child struggling and jump in to help when, really, their help wasn’t needed.

As toddlers learn how to move their body, for example, they often get frustrated trying to get from one position to another. They may grunt, groan and even scream with frustration. This is entirely natural and doesn’t mean that you have to rescue them straight away. Often they are expressing frustration but not calling for help. Don’t deprive them of the learning experience which they may be enjoying (even whilst getting frustrated at the same time). Instead, be with them and watch them closely. Pause. Give them space. They will either work it out for themselves or, after several attempts, they really will let you know they want help.

By avoiding premature rescuing you are giving them the opportunity to practice, learn and overcome difficulties which can be extremely rewarding on many different levels.

Wrapping up

Independence is a natural quality that each child is born with. The job of a parent isn’t to force it but rather to give space and gentle attention so that it flourishes all by itself.

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