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 he is leaps and bounds more independent than he was just a few short months ago. Your little one may still need you to change his diaper, but he’s got a bit more mobility than he did before, a bit more control over feeding themselves, and a lot more opinions than he started out with. This is only the beginning, too – Baby’s independence is growing as fast as he 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 he doesn’t know that he is his own distinct person, he probably isn’t going to be making lots of “I” statements any time soon.

Awareness of themselves as separate from his 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 his caregivers aren’t right there beside him, 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 him, and letting him cling for a little while, if that’s what he needs. He will use this closeness to build a strong attachment he’ll use as a base for building his independence.

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

This could mean keeping his toys somewhere he can reach them when he gets bored, and asking him to help you put them away afterward. It could mean getting a step-stool for the bathroom so you can ask Baby to wash his hands before lunch. By adding simple tasks Baby can complete to his day-to-day life, you’re helping both his skills and his 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 he would rather wear when given a choice between a few reasonable options, or which easy, healthy snack he would like to eat today, Baby is both learning how to make choices and how to live with consequences. Once he has chosen one snack, he has chosen not to have the other. If he is wearing the blue shirt, he will have to save the yellow one until tomorrow.

The dark side 

As heartwarming as it is to see your little one spreading his metaphorical wings and figuring out a little bit more about the world around him 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 him than ever.

For another thing, the more Baby is capable of doing for themselves, the more he will want to do, and not everything he wants to do will be particularly safe. Just because he can walk now doesn’t mean it’s time for him to go out and explore the driveway, and just because he may have figured out how to pull open a cabinet, that doesn’t mean it’s a good time for him 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 he was born.

In the end, though, even the growing pains that come with your toddler’s growing sense of independence are crucial, since he is going to use the tools he’s building here on his first day of school, his 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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