When I worked as a child life specialist at a children’s hospital, I often thought about the choices I could offer to the children I interacted with. A hospitalized child has very limited choices, from being at the hospital to receiving medication, to allowing endless strangers (aka medical professionals) to enter the patient room. A child’s autonomy can quickly be stripped away in a hospital setting so providing opportunities to have choices is vital for the child.

Similarly at home, I have a two-year-old who is constantly trying to assert herself in this big world and I am constantly telling her that she can’t do this or that. She is often telling me, “Gracie do it!” as she grabs her shoes out of my hands to try to put them on herself or as she pulls her hands away from mine to go down the stairs herself. In the midst of the busyness of the day, it’s easy to forget how helpful it is to give our children appropriate choices and how much they really crave for that autonomy, especially during those toddler years.

One of the more prominent developmental theorists emphasized in my education of child development was Erik Erikson. In his theory of psychosocial development, he talks about eight stages that span the human life from infancy to adulthood. Toddlers, between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old, fall into the second stage of development which is autonomy vs. shame and doubt. At this age, they are asserting their independence and autonomy. It is a time when toddlers want to be more independent and feel successful at it. Encouraging them in their autonomy will result in little ones who are secure and confident in their own abilities. On the other hand, toddlers who are not given opportunities to assert themselves in an encouraging and safe environment (i.e. a caregiver who is overly critical or too controlling) might lack self-esteem and doubt their abilities and make them more dependent on others.

Here are three ways I try to encourage autonomy and independence with my toddler.

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1. Give opportunities to make choices.  

Remember to provide authentic choices (will their decision actually be honored), present choices when appropriate (sometimes there shouldn’t be a choice), and provide a few choices (you don’t want to overwhelm your child with too many choices).

Good choices to offer your toddler: Do you want to use the red paint or the blue paint? Do you want to choose the striped shirt or the Hello Kitty shirt? Do you want yogurt or apples? Can you pick the two books you want me to read to you tonight?

2. Help them succeed in their independence.

Everyday, Baby Pizza wants to show me that she can get herself into the car and buckle in. If I try to rush this whole process and offer more of my help, it can become quite the battle. So, when possible I try to make time for her to get herself into the car seat so she feels that sense of accomplishment. She will put on her straps and click in the top buckle herself. Then for the lower buckles which are still difficult for her to do herself, I will ask her to help me push the buckle in while I click it in place. Baby Pizza always wants to put her pants on herself but sometimes when she does it all herself, her two legs sometimes get stuck in one pant leg. I will help by holding the part of the pant leg that she needs to put her leg through as she slides her leg in herself. When she stands up to pull her pants up, I will just pull up from the back at the same time. The little assistance I offer help her with the parts that are still a bit challenging and she still feels confident in her growing abilities to do such tasks.

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3. Allow them to do simple tasks that they can do themselves.

Asking them to do simple tasks like helping to pick up books or throwing something away in the garbage can are ways of supporting their autonomy. I need to work on instilling routine chores with Baby Pizza, but toddlers are able to do tasks like putting worn clothes in the laundry hamper or picking up toys before dinner. It is helpful to also make physical spaces that can encourage independence, such as having child safe cups and bowls in a lower cabinet so your toddler can get those items herself.

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Baby Pizza always gives me a confident smile on her face when she successfully accomplishes a task herself. The toddler age can be tiring at times, and there are plenty of battles as they are asserting themselves, but I know the benefits are worth it if we allow them to grow in their autonomy and independence in a safe and loving environment.

What are some ways you encourage autonomy and independence with your toddler?