“I can do it mommy!”
These are the words as parents we love to hear, yet dread at the same time. As a mother of three, I am very familiar with the desire to want to protect my children from disappointment, conflict and most importantly, harm. The process of allowing children to become more independent as they grow can be scary because our children will inevitably make mistakes along the way. However, my 28 years working as an early childhood educator have taught me that the greatest gift a parent can give a child at an early age is the opportunity to explore, discover — and make mistakes.
As your baby begins to grow into a toddler, the need to explore and discover her environment develops. This is the time when we as parents begin using what soon becomes our favorite word: “No.” As our toddler begins to pick up our favorite vase, we say “No.” She then moves on to her older brother’s science project, and we say, “No.” We give our child an age-appropriate toy and go back to folding laundry, trying to meet a work deadline, or cooking dinner. It becomes quiet, and we instinctively know that our child is ripping apart her brother’s science project. This is what toddlers do; the exact opposite of what we ask them to do. We get angry and frustrated, and they get confused. There is a better way to handle this situation that will help your child grow and lead to less frustration for you in the long run. The answer is to enter into conversation with your child.
It may seem silly to have a conversation with a child who can only mumble a few primitive words in response; however, this is exactly what will help your child develop language skills. When your child grabs your favorite crystal vase, take it down from the shelf. Put your child in your lap and let her touch the vase and maybe even hold it. Explain that this is very important to mommy, and we have to be very careful with it because it could break and that would make mommy sad. You can also point out other things that might break if we are not careful. Then show her how to handle the vase. Let her practice putting the vase down gently. After this, you may want to replace your favorite vase with something less valuable while your toddler practices his new skill. In the long run, time spent teaching toddlers how to handle things correctly will be time well spent.
Exploration to Action
As your toddler continues to develop, she will soon move from exploration to action. She will want to do things instead of just watching you do them. This is hard for us as parents. We know that things will be accomplished faster if we do them ourselves. In today’s fast paced world, the idea of waiting an extra five minutes for our toddler to accomplish something that we could accomplish in less than a minute can be challenging. However, it is crucial for your child’s development that you let her try. As a teacher, my classroom has been the first stop in many children’s educational careers. In the first week of school, it is very clear which children have been given the opportunity to do things on their own, and which children have always had things done for them. The children that are dependent on their parents have a difficult time transitioning into a classroom where they are expected to do for themselves. This frustration often gets expressed in biting other children, throwing temper tantrums, and chasing after parents as they leave. This is not the outcome parents want for their children as they enter school.
So how do we as parents prevent this? The answer is teaching your child to do for herself. This is a long and often frustrating process. Let your child feed herself even if you know that means you will have to clean up a huge mess. Let your child dress herself in the morning. If she puts her shirt on backwards, explain to her the difference between the front and the back of the shirt. Let your child pour the cereal into the bowl in the mornings. After she masters the cereal, let her pour the milk too.
Choice is also a very important part of gaining independence. Our morning routines are often the most rushed part of our day. However, this is also one of the best times to allow your child to make choices, so be prepared in the mornings. Get up an hour earlier than normal. Take a shower, get dressed, have your first cup of coffee, and then get your toddler ready for the day. Don’t overwhelm her with choices, but have some options ready. Have a couple of outfit choices set out and let your child decide what to wear. Have a few breakfast options in mind, and be prepared to let your child be an active participant in preparing breakfast. Then be patient. You need to be prepared to wait for your child to complete the task without becoming frustrated and taking over. This is the hard part! Cereal will likely be spilled on the floor the first few times. Many times as parents we expect things to be right the first time. When it isn’t, we take over and show our children how to do things instead of letting them do it, or worse, we just do it. While we think we are helping, we are taking away the opportunity of discovery.
This process of discovery, while frustrating to adults, is a tremendous learning experience for children.
The day your child transitions from saying, “I can do it mommy” to “Look mommy, I did it” will be a day of great joy for you as a parent. The smile on your child’s face will be the reward you will receive for the time you spent helping her achieve some independence. This is a wonderful gift to give a child. It is a gift that will last a lifetime!
About Belinda Baker, Early Childhood Director
Belinda Baker is the Early Childhood Director at Ursuline Academy, where she oversees the Toddler 2 through Kindergarten program in the Academy’s Souer Teresita Rivet, OSU Early Childhood Learning Center. Belinda has 28 years of experience educating young children. She served as an early childhood teacher for 12 years at Ursuline before taking on her current role as Early Childhood Director. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from Louisiana State University and is certified in Early Childhood Education. Belinda is a New Orleans native and the mother of three children.