A toddler’s growing sense of independence

Baby may not be ready to strike out into the wilderness to live off the land yet, but she is leaps and bounds more independent than she was just a few short months ago. Your little one may still need you to change her diaper, but she’s got a bit more mobility than she did before, a bit more control over feeding themselves, and a lot more opinions than she started out with. This is only the beginning, too – Baby’s independence is growing as fast as she is.

The ingredients

There are a lot of different experiences that go into the recipe for a strong, independent child, but one of the earliest and most important is Baby’s sense of self as an individual. If she doesn’t know that she is her own distinct person, she probably isn’t going to be making lots of “I” statements any time soon.

Awareness of themselves as separate from her caregivers generally happens naturally around a year old, but it’s common for this awareness to create separation anxiety, instead of independence. This is why it’s important to build trust right alongside awareness. If Baby can trust that even when her caregivers aren’t right there beside her, they’ll be back, Baby will be able to feel better about the separation. Strangely, this means that building Baby’s sense of independence can mean spending more time with her, and letting her cling for a little while, if that’s what she needs. She will use this closeness to build a strong attachment she’ll use as a base for building her independence.

The third big ingredient that goes into Baby’s independence-pie is her growing physical abilities and coordination. Right now, she is able to do more for themselves than she has ever been able to do before, and that ability is growing every day. Setting up her world so she can stretch those abilities is a great way to encourage that independence. 

This could mean keeping her toys somewhere she can reach them when she gets bored, and asking her to help you put them away afterward. It could mean getting a step-stool for the bathroom so you can ask Baby to wash her hands before lunch. By adding simple tasks Baby can complete to her day-to-day life, you’re helping both her skills and her confidence grow. Baby may take a little longer to complete these tasks than you would, but the extra time is worth it in what Baby is learning from the experience.

Another skill that’s important for Baby to practice now is the fine art of making decisions. By starting to give Baby a few, limited choices, like what she would rather wear when given a choice between a few reasonable options, or which easy, healthy snack she would like to eat today, Baby is both learning how to make choices and how to live with consequences. Once she has chosen one snack, she has chosen not to have the other. If she is wearing the blue shirt, she will have to save the yellow one until tomorrow.

The dark side 

As heartwarming as it is to see your little one spreading her metaphorical wings and figuring out a little bit more about the world around her is, there can be some side-effects to a toddler’s growing confidence and independence that can be harder for a parent to manage. For one thing, you’ve probably noticed that independence comes with more of a desire to wander off, so while Baby is getting more independent, you’ll find yourself needing to keep more of a close eye on her than ever.

For another thing, the more Baby is capable of doing for themselves, the more she will want to do, and not everything she wants to do will be particularly safe. Just because she can walk now doesn’t mean it’s time for her to go out and explore the driveway, and just because she may have figured out how to pull open a cabinet, that doesn’t mean it’s a good time for her to explore everything that’s behind that cabinet door. Your toddler may not understand these limitations, though, and the two of you could end up disagreeing more than you have since she was born.

In the end, though, even the growing pains that come with your toddler’s growing sense of independence are crucial, since she is going to use the tools she’s building here on her first day of school, her first day out of school, and every day after that.

  • “Developing School-readiness Skills from 12-24 Months.” Zero to Three. Zero to Three, 2016. Web.
  • “Helping Raise an Independant Toddler.” Ask Dr. Sears. Ask Dr. Sears, 2016. Web.
  • “‘I can do it myself!’ Encouraging your child’s independence.” State Government of Victoria Department of Education and Early Child Development, Issue No. 14.
  • Sandra Crosser. “Would You Like and Apple or a Banana? Why offering Toddlers Choices is Important.” Early Childhood News. Excelligence Learning Corporation, 2008. Web.
  • Susan A. Miller, Ellen Booth Church, Carla Poole. “Ages & Stages: How Children Develop Self-Concept.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc., 2016. Web.
  • Jim Taylor. “Parenting: Raise Independent Children.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers LLC, November 17 2010. Web.
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