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Let me do it! Navigating toddlers’ newfound independence

Somewhere in the middle of your toddler’s second year, she will make a major leap toward becoming a self-aware, conscious being. Before roughly 18 months, your baby is still working out the boundaries between herself and others and the concept that she is, indeed, a separate person with her own thoughts and feelings. Of course the development of self-consciousness – measured by the famous “mirror test” – is a gradual process that starts in babyhood, crystallizes in toddlerhood, and continues to grow and change in the following years.

Add this to ever-increasing levels of motor prowess and you can understand why your little one wants to flex her newfound independence.

The key is to set her loose on this task, while still moving ahead with your own day and keeping everyone out of the emergency room. Here are some thoughts to help you:

1. Choices, choices, choices. You’ve heard this before, and it’s true: choices give your child an important feeling of control. The trick is to present them within your framework, that way your toddler is choosing how things are done, but you are choosing when and whether they are done. For example, your wide-eyed toddler doesn’t want to stop playing to get ready for nap. Instead of asking if she’s tired or giving direct orders, ask her to choose how the first step of the naptime routine will go: Do you want to read stories on the floor or on the couch? This brings her focus to the all-important task of choosing (and away from the question of sleep itself).

2. Learn to tolerate her frustration and mistakes: Within reason, it’s best to set your tiny person free to problem-solve on her own. When she’s frustrated with a puzzle, resist the urge to hint or give help; the process of wrong answers and failed attempts is equally important as getting it right. While you’re giving her space to bumble along and figure things out the hard way, it helps to pad in time (for example, before leaving the house) to lower your frustration level with the trial and error.

3. Make the environment safe: Let’s face it: one-year-olds have all-important plans to carry out but very little sense of danger. “Are you trying to hurt yourself?” you might think, watching your toddler wield a five-foot long, wooden broom handle or make a beeline straight toward the pool edge. When she’s two, you won’t necessarily feel the ever-present threat of danger and self-harm, but for now, it helps to make your environment safe so you don’t sweat it as much.

And a quick calculation of physical threat comes in handy: if she wants to take the non-breakable bowl of cereal to the kitchen herself, why not? A spill means you clean up together. If she wants to walk down the treacherous concrete stairs “by self” without holding a rail, that’s a no-go. If you’ve given her plenty of choices in other realms, it’s perfectly fine (though she won’t agree) to say, You can either hold my hand or the rail, otherwise I’ll pick you up.

4. Entice instead of interrupt: One of the major cognitive tasks a young child has is forming and executing her own plans. They may seem silly (and inconvenient) to you – like her plan to diligently pull each book of the shelf into a huge pile on the floor, but it’s actually important to let your child follow through on these plans (when they don’t interfere too much with your own).

But a toddler’s dedication to her plans is part of what makes transitions tough. When she’s in the groove somewhere it’s highly unlikely she’ll want to move on to the next thing, which is dictated by your plan. When you’re trying to get her on board, it helps to catch her attention with the next thing. Instead of saying, We have to leave, let’s put the helicopter down and come to the door, try, Hey, do you think that rain puddle is still in the front sidewalk? Let’s go look!

5. Stay with her. Even though a toddler talks a big game about doing everything by herself, she clearly still needs you to stick with her and stay available. Try to take a deep breath and know that her outbursts are part of the process of building emotional skill. She’s in the midst of a great internal debate over being all-powerful one minute and desperately needing mom or dad the next. The best you can do is keep her safe, help her follow through with her plans, and be there when she inevitably turns around to ask for help.

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