Find out how best to help your kids foster healthy self-esteem
Rewards and Reasons
“I can do it!” All parents have heard this phrase from their toddlers. Sometimes it’s shouted to convey, “Back off, I can handle this myself!” Other times it means, “Look what I can do! Aren’t you proud of me?” Before they can speak, children seek independence, and often the first steps are in self-care exercises such as such as getting dressed, putting away toys, or washing hands.
Dr. Nicholas Long, PhD, professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric psychology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ College of Medicine says, “the exact ages vary, but the desire to start doing things on their own often starts before the age of one, when they start eating finger foods, and increases as they are able to physically do more.”
Big-kid skills are developmentally important for children. Dr. Long says, “As infants, children are totally dependent on their parents for meeting all of their needs. As toddlers, they start down the path of becoming independent, so eventually they will be ready to separate from their parents and become independent adults.”
Environmental, social, and physical factors can vary the speed at which a child becomes independent. For instance, a child with Velcro shoes may not learn to tie shoelaces by age six, as children with laced shoes normally do. But, according to Dr. Long, “If [toddlers] are not encouraged to become progressively more independent during the toddler and preschool years, they can develop some major difficulties later in childhood, like poor peer relationships and low self-esteem.”
Creating an Independence-Friendly Home
Big-kid skills start when children are toddlers and center around children helping themselves. But as kids develop, their skills can include helping others as well. Your child can gain independence and develop growing big-kid skills with these tips:
In the Kitchen: Terri Wilson, author of the preschool curriculum Hands on Homeschooling, lines her three children’s breakfast cups on the counter each morning, including the sippy cup for her youngest. “For breakfast, my kids all get their cups off the counter and choose a breakfast bar or cereal from the breakfast shelf.” Her three-year-old also helps the older sisters by clearing the dinner table after meals and sorting silverware from the dishwasher.
Store snacks on a shelf within your toddler’s reach and implement an ask-first rule so your child gets permission before choosing a snack. Your toddler will enjoy getting his own healthy snack while experiencing the freedom of deciding which snack he wants.
In the Bedroom: Clothing should be accessible for youngsters. Use low dresser drawers for clothes in season and upper, hard-to-reach drawers for out-of-season clothing. Teach children to put away their toys in the correct places. A preschool or daycare bag, shoes, and jacket should be easily accessible for the morning rush and other outings. Readily available books, safe art supplies, and age-appropriate activities encourage independence, self-entertainment, imagination, and development of fine-motor skills. And don’t forget, though it may not be perfect every time, children can also make their beds.
In the Bathroom: Toddlers require supervision in the bathroom, but there are many self-sufficiency skills you can teach your child. A secure step stool allows children to reach toiletries and running water for personal hygiene routines. Also, teach bathroom rules and etiquette, such as putting the toilet lid down, cleaning the sink after use, and returning a hand towel to its proper location. The toilet paper rule “to the floor and no more” allows kids to take care of bathroom visits without overflowing the toilet.
Around the House: Children can pick up after themselves, help sort dirty laundry by color, and dust low shelves. Patti Tomlinson, mother of three in Fort Worth, Texas, taught her children to scoop dry pet food and water the pets each morning.
Around the Yard: Watering plants, picking up trash, planting flowers, and weeding the lawn are all daily skills that little kids can do to help out.
With a little help, and a lot of encouragement, children will learn to perform big-kid skills alone. Always offer encouragement for positive behavior and set a good example for doing things correctly, every time. Angie Clark, associate for Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., says, “I often caution parents, don’t expect [toddlers] to leave the kitchen as clean as you would or to make their beds as smoothly as you can. But they have completed a task on their own, and they can feel good about having done it.” Clark applies the practices she suggests. “One of my greatest goals as a mother is to help grow my children into adults who are intelligent, contributing members of society. I believe one of the ways I can do that is to teach them to be independent, self-sufficient.”
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