Does your child insist on being a “big kid” and doing everything herself? Learn how to raise an independent toddler while keeping her safe.
According to my toddler, being a grown-up was where it was at.
He wanted to do everything adults did, refused to sit in the grocery cart, and liked to “discipline” his baby brothers. He even fussed about holding hands when crossing the street.
As a mom, I found this desire to be an independent toddler both admirable and… exhausting. I knew our job was to raise self-sufficient future adults who could function as well as we do.
At the same time, the push for independence can feel scary, especially when he took risks I wasn’t sure he was ready for. His “Me do it!” insistence made the day much longer, to the point where putting on shoes now took several minutes instead of a few seconds.
And, well, part of a child’s independence is learning to let go of that stage in childhood. It’s a realization that they’re growing up—and there’s no turning back.
Raising an independent toddler
Let’s be honest: all these factors have so far been a selfish focus on me, the parent. My toddler needed to become more independent, and I didn’t want to hold him back. At the same time, I wanted to know how parents can balance that budding independence with safety as well as our day-to-day rhythm.
So, I read about how to foster that independence in a healthy, safe way. It turns out, we can help them become self-sufficient while guiding them along the way. Here’s what we can do to raise an independent toddler:
1. Don’t hold your toddler back
The first step is to notice when you tend to hold your toddler back from gaining her independence. Then, embrace her desire to challenge herself and do things only you had done for her in the past.
If need be, guide and coach her along the way, but don’t hold her back or tell her to when she has a good chance of learning.
The first time my twins insisted on putting on their own shoes was the longest morning ever. It didn’t help that we needed to head out right away, or that I kept thinking, I could do this in five seconds!
My hands were itching to get those shoes on their feet… but I resisted. I realized that if I ever wanted them to learn how to put their shoes on, they were only going to learn by trying. And, as we all know, it takes time and practice, and it definitely doesn’t happen on the first few tries.
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2. “Show, together, monitor, alone”
Watching your toddler try something above his comfort level can be scary for any parent. How do you respond when he insists on climbing a bigger playground structure or wants to prepare his own snack?
First, make sure the task is age-appropriate. Climbing the playground structure may be fine, but not when he wants to be 12 feet off the ground. And similarly, fetching his own snack can be helpful, but maybe not one that requires a sharp knife to slice.
Once you’ve established the task is age-appropriate, follow what I call the “show / together / monitor / alone” process:
- Start by showing him how to do it. Take the first slice of bread and show him how to spread the peanut butter on the bread.
- Then, do it together. Have him hold the knife while you guide his hand to spread the peanut butter.
- Next, monitor him doing the task alone. Stay nearby, ready to answer questions while he tries to spread the peanut butter without your help.
- Do this often enough, and he’ll reach the point where he can do it alone. Not only will he be able to make his own PB&J sandwich alone, he also won’t need you nearby to monitor.
This process can take several tries, but the ultimate goal is about teaching him to be independent. You’ll start by doing the task for him while he watches, and end with him taking on the role on his own without your help.
3. Let your toddler do things her way
Nobody likes being micromanaged, including toddlers.
Embrace not only your toddler’s desire for independence, but his unique methods and ways, too. He may not fold napkins the way you do, but you’re better off praising his effort than risk turning him off helping you in the future.
After all, we’re different people, with our own preferences and thinking processes. Give him the autonomy to do things his way rather than have him conform to your style.
4. Allow your toddler to struggle
Like any mom, I don’t enjoy seeing my kids struggle. I don’t like the disappointed look in their eyes, the anger that might develop when they fail. For tasks that come so easily for me, I’m especially tempted to step right in and do it myself—to save them the trouble in the first place.
Except this attempt to save them actually does more harm than good. How?
Kids assume we don’t think they’re cut out for doing these tasks. Right away, they sense our hesitation and doubts instead of our belief and support in their abilities.
They also don’t learn how to do these tasks when we swoop in at the first sign of trouble. They’ll learn much more from trying, failing, and trying again than for us to step in all the time.
And finally, we send the message that anything that requires effort isn’t worth pursuing. That they ought to give up the minute something gets hard.
Instead, nurture your toddler’s independent streak by allowing her to struggle. In most cases, she won’t even mind, and she’ll see obstacles as the inevitable challenges that come with independence.
5. Accommodate your toddler’s independence
Having a toddler who insisted on cooking with me in the kitchen wasn’t the most efficient use of my time. I had dinner to prepare—in less than an hour—and I found myself more impatient than grateful that I had a little helper.
I didn’t want him to lose interest, so I tried something different. Instead of speeding through the cooking process, I allowed plenty of time before dinner to get started. That way, the extra time allowed him to go at his pace and kept me from feeling rushed.
Knowing your toddler will likely insist on his independence, try accommodating his needs.
For instance, if he wants to dress himself in the mornings, wake him up early enough so you don’t feel rushed to head out the door. Give yourself more time to shop for groceries if you know he’ll want to walk alongside you instead of sitting in the cart.
We often butt heads with our kids when we try to go through the day in our old routines and schedules. Avoid the power struggles and stress by taking into account your toddler’s need for extra time as he practices doing things on his own.
Fostering independence in a toddler can be challenging for any parent. Your toddler’s insistence might mean taking a longer time putting on shoes, or having to explain tasks that seem so easy and basic for you.
You might even feel scared or anxious that she’ll hurt herself in her attempt for independence. You’re worried she’ll accidentally cut herself while using the scissors, or fall as she tries to swing on the monkey bars.
An independent toddler is a clear but sometimes painful sign that your little one is growing up. Letting go and realizing there’s no going back to the infant and early toddler days can be a jarring reality check for many of us.
But fostering that independence is so important, especially if your toddler is already insisting on doing this on her own. She’s willing and ready to explore, and will grow into a self-sufficient, competent person because of it.
Sure, you’ll still have to hold hands while crossing the street, but grocery shopping might take a little longer from now on.
Get more tips:
- How to Survive the First Weeks with a Newborn and Toddler
- As Frustrating As It Is, Your Child’s Behavior Is Normal
- The Reason You’re Probably Not Giving Your Child Enough Autonomy
- Are You Teaching These Life Skills Your Child Needs in Adulthood?
- 6 Traits You Can Teach to Guide Kids to Success
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