by Kelley Jilek
“I want to do it!” How often have you heard your child utter this phrase? It’s a true sign of a child trying to establish a new level of independence.
Independence is defined as “not requiring or relying on others for care or support.” Of course, children cannot be expected to become totally independent until they’re grown and out of the house. However, they do establish a higher level of independence with each stage of development. For example, infants gain more independence when they learn to crawl or walk, toddlers when they begin feeding themselves, and preschoolers when they begin dressing themselves. As parents and caregivers, there are many ways we can encourage children to strive for, and eventually reach, higher levels of independence.
Infants Create a safe environment. Babies will naturally try new things, but in order to do so, anything that is unsafe for them needs to be well out of their reach. Babies should be provided with room to crawl and climb. Also, keep in mind – they do much of their exploring with their mouths!
Toddlers Encourage children to do what they are capable of. If you know your toddler can put his coat on independently, encourage him to do so each time. If necessary, allow extra time since it will likely take longer for your toddler to do these tasks alone than it did when you did it for him.
Respond quickly to your toddler’s signs of distress. Toddlers have limited language to express their frustrations and needs, so they may not be able to verbalize how they are feeling. Pay attention to what she is attempting and provide support when needed. If she is struggling and frustrated, see what you can do to help, but don’t take over the situation.
Preschoolers Provide preschoolers with options. Allow preschoolers to make some of the decisions that pertain to them each day. What will your child wear to daycare tomorrow? What kind of cereal will he eat for breakfast today? Limit the number of items or choices at first. For example, offer two different shirts, and have your child choose the one he will wear.
Establish a child-friendly environment. Organize your home to allow children to do some things without having to ask for help from an adult. For example, place a step stool by the bathroom sink so your child can reach the faucets safely. Or, pour milk into a small pitcher that can be easily handled, allowing her to serve herself during meals. Also, place toys on shelves at her level so she can choose which toys she will use and put them away as well.
Children of All Ages Acknowledge children’s accomplishments. Children need encouragement to keep trying new things. Let them know you are proud of their efforts! Realize each child is different. Some children will ask for a lot of help during each learning stage while others will require very little. Allow children to tackle each stage at their own pace.
Allow children to revisit previous levels of independence occasionally. Sometimes, children will ask for help in doing things they previously could do before. This may happen when a child is not feeling well, when he is learning a new task, when he is adjusting to changes at home or child care, or for many other reasons. Support your child’s requests during these times and realize that it’s usually only temporary.
Remember…children will make mistakes as they strive for independence. Each task requires a considerable amount of patience from adults. However, with our support, the mistakes will become learning experiences and not setbacks. Allowing them to strive for independence will set them on right track for the future.