Teaching toddlers to be independent is all part of the growing-up process. With each new task learned and mastered-or at least improved upon-confidence grows.
"Toddlers get a lot out of being given the opportunity to do things independently," says Kevin Osborn, father of four and author of . "Doing something all by himself will probably surprise him the first few times while at the same time filling him with joy and delight … Success (no matter how many times it was preceded by failure) in doing something he wanted to do will boost the toddler's self-confidence—making him more willing to take on new challenges tomorrow."
Opportunities to learn begin at birth and should be offered consistently. Simple tasks, like eating with utensils and undressing, are early skills toddlers can learn, usually by around 13 months of age, according to Dr. Elizabeth O'Connell, a pediatrician practicing in Newport Beach, California. "Most toddlers will begin to do these things on their own, given the time and opportunity," she says. "Undressing can take a while when they are first learning, and learning to feed yourself using utensils is always messy (but fun!)."
Sometimes it's easier (and faster) to complete a task ourselves. But it's best to allow extra time for them to do it themselves—and to let them express their creativity along with independence. "I have a rule in my house," says Hazel Larkin of Dublin, Ireland. "As long as the child dresses herself, then I have no business to comment on what she is wearing, as long as it is weather-appropriate. I am not entitled to comment on her [color] coordination. She has saved me a job. If I want her dressed in matching stuff, then it's up to me to dress her."
Osborn believes there's nothing wrong with parents doing things for their toddler—even when she could do them herself. But a parent who insists on doing it all may unwittingly deny a child the opportunity to learn. "A toddler will develop more skills more quickly the more opportunities she is given to practice them," she says.
What's the best way to teach toddlers independence? There are as many answers as toddlers. Every child is an individual, learning at his own pace, showing interest in different tasks. Dr. O'Connell says toddlers are great mimics, and this is a good place to start teaching them. "When they are beginning to feed themselves, you can help them grasp the spoon or fork with the correct end, point toward their mouth, and they may even need a little assistance in hitting that target," she says.
Other tricks include dressing them in elastic-waist pants when they seem interested in helping remove their own clothes. "Some toddlers may need help figuring out how to pull down their pants, but will master it quickly when they are ready," Dr. O'Connell says. "Of course, this new skill will lead to the challenge of keeping the pants on, but it is one of the first steps toward being able to toilet train!"
Jennifer Waldburger, a licensed social worker and co-founder of Sleepy Planet, believes in offering lots of choices throughout the day. This allows toddlers to practice independence and express their own opinions. "Always offer two choices that work for you," Waldburger says. For example: "It's time to get in the car now—do you want to put your coat on by yourself, or do you want me to help you?" (Don't ask "Do you want to get in the car?" This allows them to say no.) At bedtime: "Do you want to wear the green pajamas or the blue ones?" If your toddler is preverbal, he can point to his choice.
"Another upside to offering choices is that toddlers who are beginning to want to make their own decisions will be less likely to get into power struggles with you when given the chance to flex their own muscles a bit," Waldburger says.
Not all kids naturally desire independence. But there are ways to encourage them. Dr. O'Connell suggests making tasks fun. "Sometimes it will be more fun for them to feed you with utensils ('Give Mommy a bite and then you take a bite')," she says. "Another example of this would be picking up toys, which can be made into a game or done to music."
Waldburger warns that toddlers tend to have a low frustration tolerance. "So you are always trying to walk a fine line between allowing some independence/encouraging creative problem solving, but not allowing your child to get so frustrated on a regular basis that he gives up," she says. "As long as he's completing most of the tasks you're giving him, he's doing well. If he's more frustrated than not, then you're probably a couple of steps ahead of where he is, and it's time to lower expectations a bit."