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 they are leaps and bounds more independent than they were just a few short months ago. Your little one may still need you to change their diaper, but they're got a bit more mobility than they did before, a bit more control over feeding themself, and a lot more opinions than they started out with. This is only the beginning, too – Baby’s independence is growing as fast as they are.

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 they doesn’t know that they are their own distinct person, they probably isn’t going to be making lots of “I” statements any time soon.

Awareness of themself as separate from their 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 their caregivers aren’t right there beside them, 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 them, and letting them cling for a little while, if that’s what they need. They will use this closeness to build a strong attachment they'll use as a base for building their independence.

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

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

The dark side 

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

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

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