The journey towards independence

“Help me to do it myself”: how to help children who want to do things for themselves

By Paulene Ricardson, an Early Childhood and Montessori specialist

From the moment of birth, your child began their journey toward independence.  As a parent, you rejoiced when your child reached important milestones.  The first time they rolled over, the first time they sat up, the first time they crawled, their first tentative steps and first delightful words. 

These are all vital steps in your baby becoming an independently functioning individual.

Then around 18 months to two years of age, things often begin to take a different turn.  

Your child’s strong desire to ‘do it myself’ begins to conflict with your needs.  You’re rushing out the door and all your little one wants to put on their own shoes…  You’re in a hurry so you try to help and they become distraught.

You’re frustrated, they’re frustrated.  What can be done?  How can you help your child work toward independence so that they’re more satisfied and you’re less stressed?

What’s driving your child?

It’s important that as parents we understand what is driving our young child.  What developmental needs are they trying to satisfy, and how can we help them to meet those needs?  When your baby is learning to walk, all they wanted to do is be mobile!  When restricted they became incredibly frustrated and unhappy. 

We understand they need to be mobile, and so we provide opportunity for them to practise their new walking skills as much as we can.  It’s exactly the same for other steps toward independence.

What’s really important to remember is that no matter how carefully or how many times you explain it, your young child cannot understand or appreciate your adult values, adult problems or adult time scales. They can’t, they really really can’t.

Often it’s this mismatch of understanding and expectations which causes tension and unhappiness for both you and your child.

It doesn’t matter to your child that you will be late for work if they’re taking too long to put on their shoes. Or that juice seeping out of your child’s mug will ‘ruin’ the carpet. Or that their brand new top is stained by paint.

You are driven by one set of motives, and your child is intensely driven by completely different motives over which they have no real control. The young child really does need to put their shoes on themselves, and to pour their own drink and feed themselves.

How can you help?

It’s our job as parents to understand the needs of our child, and to work out how our needs and theirs can both be met (most of the time!). This is, of course, more easily said than done, especially if you have no experience in early education. 

I recommend a Montessori-inspired approach, which is based on observation of young children and the study of their needs at various stages coupled with practical steps to meet those needs.

Using the Montessori-inspired approach provides a supportive framework for parents to help their child to do it themselves.  So, where to start?

Firstly, take a little time to observe, what is it that your child most wants to do? Make a list of those things and start with the one which is easiest for you.

Secondly, identify a way you can see for your child to do that activity safely and independently.

The “I want to put on my own shoes” example

If shoes are an issue (for example), you can:

1. Create a separate activity where shoes are placed in a basket on a shelf with toys and your child can practise putting them on and off as often as they want. Their skills will rapidly improve.
2. Ensure storage is practical so your child can access (and put away) appropriate clothing and shoes.
3. Purchase clothing and shoes which make it easy for your child to dress themselves and go to the toilet.
4. Provide a low stool for your child to sit on to make this easier.
5. When you have to leave the house, give your child enough time to allow them to use the skills they have, always ask if they want help before you step in, they’re more likely to accept help if it’s not forced upon them.
You can also do this with other items of clothing.

The “I want to help in the kitchen” example

Children often want desperately to help prepare food, help with washing and use the hand basin. In fact they will likely want to do all the activities that they see around them, the activities that are important to the running of the household.

To be effective, your child needs to acquire the skills of the activity.

So first visually demonstrate (rather than explain verbally) “how”, and then give your little one the opportunity to practise over and over if and when they want.

Also, make sure you have appropriate equipment so your child can safely participate.. This may include:

1. A learning tower in the kitchen to provide safe access to kitchen benches and easy involvement in the preparation of food. If you are not familiar with a learning tower I have included a link to some available to buy and also plans for making one yourself.
2. Child safe kitchen utensils (lots are available on the net) and a child sized chopping board, plus a place to for them to contribute.
3. A sturdy child sized table and chair or a Tripp Trapp chair (trust us, they’re excellent) so the child can eat at the dining table

The “I want to wash my hands by myself” example

One of the first things children often want to do for themselves is wash their hands. This is simple to set up and you have many opportunities to demonstrate and to emphasis the key points.

1. A step to allow access to the hand-basin
2. A hand-towel at the right height
3. If possible, a tap your child can safely operate.
4. Later, when the child wants to use the toilet by themselves, a special step with hand supports helps them to feel secure and manage the process alone.

Final thoughts

Understanding your child’s strong and innate drive for independence can help you to see their behaviour differently. Parents often tell me that understanding more about their child’s developmental needs made a real difference to their parenting.

You are the key to your child being able to meet this important developmental need, so be creative and find every way you can to help your little one “do it themselves”.

If you’re a little unsure about where to start or if it all seems a bit overwhelming, you are not alone. Every parent has gone through the same anxiety.

Once you get started, you’ll soon see many ways you can create activities which encourage and support your child’s independence. When you do, everyone will be happier as children thrive and are at their most content when their developmental needs are met.

About the author

Paulene Ricardson helps parents use Montessori-inspired parenting to bring out the best in their children and give them the very best start possible. 

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