CONTRIBUTOR: Jana Vos
Play Sense, Parktown North/Parkhurst, Johannesburg (August 2019)
The importance of allowing toddlers to do things independently
Not long after a toddler starts talking – whether it’s in understandable words or whether it takes a while to figure out – you are sure to hear him/her say, “ME DO IT!” (or something like it) quite often. With each of your baby’s milestones, you applaud the things they start doing by themselves, but around the toddler years, their desire to do things themselves often cause frustration for their caregivers. Suddenly, they want to do EVERYTHING themselves, and something simple like putting on a pair of shoes can turn into an excruciatingly long exercise.
While it is just not possible to allow your little one to do something himself all the time (sometimes there are time constraints or other factors involved), there is undoubtedly much value in allowing them to practice and learn to do things on their own. Every time they master something new, they build their sense of self-worth – seeing themselves as capable beings, which in turn builds their confidence to try new things. And as we all know, before we can master something, we need to practice it – which includes trying and failing a few times.
It’s important to allow our children learning experiences that are age appropriate¹. This simply means that we consider their age and development in what we expect from them. We don’t expect a toddler to be able to make a perfect peanut butter sandwich, because they are still learning to control their hands and finger muscles. We can, however, provide them with child-friendly eating utensils with which they can playfully practice preparing or eating a meal (a playdough meal, if you like), all the while teaching them about safety in the kitchen. When we provide our children with age appropriate learning experiences, we basically give them the power to succeed – and they need to succeed in order to build their healthy self-esteem. When we make a little fuss about the times when they did succeed, they feel very proud and it encourages them to try out more things.
I recently read an interesting article about the importance of allowing our children to be helpful². The article states that, “we ourselves generally think of work as something that people naturally don’t want to do”, but that toddlers and babies from as young as 14 months have an intrinsic desire to help and be helpful to others. Research also indicates that their desire to help is linked to some expected reward, but not as you think… “they help because they want to be helpful, not because they expect to get something from it”. It further states that no reward should be given to a child for being helpful – a simple “Thank you,” with a smile is enough.
As parents and caregivers, we have the desire to “protect” our little ones from unpleasant experiences, such as getting hurt while playing. And it is definitely important to shelter them from dangerous situations that can have long-term health implications or protect them from situations that can damage their emotional wellbeing. But as every parent or caregiver knows, it is simply impossible to shelter them from EVERY unfortunate experience. In some way or another, our children will experience disappointments, injuries, people who are different from what they are used to, and challenges of all kinds.
When we realize that we cannot shelter our children from life’s hard things, the focus shifts from trying to protect our children to gradually preparing them for the inevitable setbacks of life – with emphasis on the word “gradually” – it’s vitally important that we give them age appropriate experiences to develop their confidence and positive self-esteem. Although there is no way we can know the details of how their precious lives will unfold, we can be certain that they will face experiences that will require perseverance, patience, and compassion for others and the natural world, to name but a few. We can be certain that our children will need skills relating to conflict management, dealing with disappointments (whether it’s not getting a toy they see in the store, not making a sports team they tried out for, or feeling disappointed in friendships or relationships) and taking care of their environment (in and around the home, the natural world and the people around them).
As our little ones grow, so should their experiences. Little by little, we can and should prepare our children for the life that lies ahead, by consciously guiding them through the experiences that are part of their everyday life. When a toddler struggles to take off his shoes, we can respond by voicing our confidence in his abilities and giving him a chance to try again: “Let’s try again – I’m sure you can do it! Do you want to watch me take off my shoes?” We can gently help his little hands to nudge the shoe off over his ankle, applauding him as he gets it right. When she insists that she cannot make a playdough snake, we can encourage her and let her try on her own for a while, before showing her little hands how to roll the playdough on a flat surface or between her own hands, or even holding her hands in ours as we help her to achieve her goal, if necessary, and cheering her on when she gets it right. This builds your little one’s confidence in their own abilities and teaches them to persevere – even when they don’t succeed the first time around. I often reassure the toddlers in my group by saying, “Would you like me to help you? I love helping you when you ask me to.” I have found that they are eager to try on their own, and very often they surprise me with what they can do when I let them figure it out for themselves. I could barely believe my eyes when one of the two and a half year-olds in my group recently put on her socks and shoes without ANY help from me, and I know that her parents also encourage her to try and do things for herself.
Another practical example is by allowing them to help with simple, age-appropriate chores around the house. We might joke about or feel like we’re making use of “child labour” as we ask the toddler to bring his baby sister’s nappy-bag, but the sense of confidence and pride he feels that he can be helpful to his mom or dad, is invaluable. As we allow our little ones to be productive, helpful members of the household, they get the sense of self-worth in knowing that they can mean something to others, and they gain confidence in knowing that they are capable in doing different kinds of things. Not only do they satisfy their innate desire to be helpful, but they are learning important life skills and building a healthy confidence in their ability to do different things.
In summary, if there is one thing that I’ve learnt in my few years as a teacher, it is the importance of preparing our little ones for the life that lies ahead. We can do by helping them make sense of the experiences they will go through, and by allowing them to learn skills like perseverance, helpfulness and kindness as we allow them to struggle and master, guiding them through their everyday experiences.
1. I loved this article about the things toddlers are able to do by themselves, if we allow them to practice. https://amotherfarfromhome.com/things-2-3-year-olds-really-can-do-on-their-own/
2. What an incredible article! https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201809/toddlers-want-help-and-we-should-let-them