The Can-Do Kid: Nurturing Your Preschooler's Independence

Whether she's feeding Spot or buckling her booster, your preschooler wants to be more independent. But how much should you let her handle?

  • Beth Studenberg

    Sudden Independence

    Yesterday, my 4-year-old son, Zachary, tried to cook a frozen waffle in a frying pan. He had tiptoed from his bedroom and turned on the stove when I was sleeping. Fortunately, our range is so noisy that it woke me up in time to stop him. The experience blindsided me, though: A few weeks ago, Zachary couldn't be bothered to get a juice box out of the fridge. "Children this age go from 0 to 60 on the independence scale, so it's vital to talk to them about safety rules before they get any big ideas," says Daniel Coury, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. "But you don't want to scare them off. They are ready for more responsibility." Where do you draw the line? Safety experts help you set smart limits for tasks that preschoolers want to do on their own.

  • Heather Weston

    Take Care of the Pet

    Your Fear: She'll overfeed the fish or the dog.

    Good Fix: Rather than having your child shake the fish food from the container or try to handle a big package of dog chow, make a few preportioned bags or bowls for her. "Tell your child that the bags contain the exact amount her pet needs to eat, and if he gets more than that he might get sick," says Daniel Coury, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. If she wants another task, encourage her to fill your dog or cat's water bowl (place a small plastic pitcher near the bowl to keep spills to a minimum) or brush the dog or cat (only if the pet enjoys being brushed). Then sit back and watch. If your child remembers to do a task day after day, let her keep doing it. If she forgets, scale down to a once-a-week chore and try again in a few months.

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Make His Breakfast

    Your Fear: He'll get hurt or start a fire.

    Good Fix: Reorganize your kitchen so there are no-cook breakfast options your child can easily reach, suggests Nancy Prisby, a social worker at the Beech Acres Parenting Center, in Cincinnati. Fill a low drawer or a bottom pantry shelf with cereal, granola bars, whole-grain crackers, peanut butter, child-safe utensils, and tableware. Keep a fruit bowl in a place your child can reach -- apples, pears, and seedless grapes are in-season picks that don't require peeling. And to drink? Put a no-spill cup or water bottle filled with milk, juice, or water on the bottom shelf of the fridge so your child can pull it out. If your kid asks about using the microwave or toaster oven, tell him you'll teach him how when he's older.

  • Edmund Barr

    Answer the Door

    Your Fear: Your child could be snatched or let a stranger in the house.

    Good Fix: Tell your kid that she can ask who it is, but she should never let anyone in without your permission, says Greg Oliver, a pediatric psychologist at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Oliver suggests role-playing to make sure your child understands these rules and taking turns pretending to be the stranger. "If someone comes to the door and says, 'I'm a friend of your mom,' teach your child to keep the door locked and say, 'I'll get my mom for you,' recommends Oliver. "Or, if someone comes to the door and says, 'I'm the mailman and I have a box for your dad,' teach your child to say, 'Please leave it there and he'll get it later.'"

  • Getty

    Fill the Bathtub

    Your Fear: He'll scorch himself, slip, or get water everywhere.

    Good Fix: Make sure your home's hotwater heater is set to 120°F or below so there's no chance of his getting burned. (This is a good idea even if your child isn't eager to tackle the tub; kids can scald their hands while washing them in the sink.) Once you've done this, it's safe to let your child help you fill the tub -- perhaps he can turn on the cold water and you can adjust the hot -- and he can even put in the plug, says Daniel Coury, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. Of course, you should always stick around during the bath.

  • Buckle Her Booster

    Your Fear: She'll do it wrong and the buckle will open while you're driving.

    Good Fix: Tell your child to go right ahead, but you must check it to make sure she's safe. It's also okay for her to unbuckle herself once the engine is off but remind her to never do it while the car is moving, says Daniel Coury, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio.

    Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Parents magazine.