How to Give Toddlers Some Autonomy

Help your toddler gain independence one step at a time.
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It often feels like seemingly overnight that a completely dependent baby turns into a toddler who is crying, “I want to do it myself!” According to a study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, allowing your toddler some autonomy—that is, the ability to do things on her own—is a developmental boon for your child. In this particular study, children of parents who let the little one solve a game problem displayed better levels of “executive function,” a type of high-level thinking.

But, it’s not easy to let go of being 100 percent responsible for your child. And, let’s face it, it’s faster if you tie your child’s shoes, pick out an outfit and give her a bath, rather than letting her do it herself. However, granting your toddler some autonomy shows that you trust her to make her own decisions, which encourages her to tackle challenges and solve problems on her own.

What Counts as ‘Autonomy?’

You don’t need to send your child off to bed without a story or let her walk to daycare alone to give her autonomy. It’s as simple as asking her to complete some easy tasks such as taking her dish to the sink, putting away non-breakable items from the dishwasher or choosing pajamas to wear to bed. It also means letting your toddler make some choices on her own.

How to Encourage Autonomy

  • Offer choices. Give your child two choices. Instead of asking her, “What vegetable do you want for dinner?” which could lead to a ridiculous request or an outright refusal of vegetables entirely, ask, “Do you want corn or broccoli for dinner tonight?”
  • Encourage your child to answer questions independently. So many parents automatically answer when their young one is asked how old he is or a similar question. It might take some coaxing, but teach the child how to politely answer questions on her own.
  • Create a routine that your child can master. Your child has grown to learn that she takes a bath, puts on her pajamas, brushes her teeth, reads a story, sings a song and then goes to bed. While she likely needs your supervision and help during this routine, let her move from one task to another and complete the ones she can, such as putting on pajamas and brushing her teeth.
  • Assign simple chores. It might seem like your child is too young, but a toddler can help put away non-breakable dishes, feed the dog or carry a light package from the mailbox to the house.

Dos and Don’ts for the Parent

  • Do be patient. Yes, it will take forever for your daughter to figure out how to tie her shoe. Let her learn the skill; she will soon master the task and move on to figuring out the next life skill.
  • Don’t swoop into rescue your child from everything. Struggling to figure something out rather than handing it off to a parent allows a child to learn how to problem-solve.
  • Do encourage autonomy in a safe environment. Make sure heavy furniture is secure (in case of climbing), the room is free from choking hazards and that someone is within eyesight of your toddler at all times. Autonomy doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be supervised.  
  • Don’t forget that your toddler still depends on you. There’s a difference between raising an independent child and failing to provide guidance.

The goal is to create an independent little one who’s happy to explore and make choices in a safe manner.

Foster their independence to help create “the little toddler who can!”

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