"I'll Do It My Way!"
The seeds of independence are actually sowed quite early, far earlier than the point at which your child can say, "No! Me do it!" The very first step occurs around 6 months of age, when baby begins to understand that he's an individual, separate from his parents.
Surprisingly enough, baby's first indication of independence may be crying when Mom or Dad leaves the room. Separation anxiety in all its noisy glory is a sign that your child understands he's his own person; as much as he wants to try things out himself, he's still unsure about it and wants Mom or Dad around. From there, the signs get more obvious. A 7- or 8-month-old may grab his spoon to feed himself; a 9- or 10-month-old will crawl to his toy box and select the toys he wants to play with.
Perhaps the biggest hallmark of independence is learning to walk at around age 1, according to Alan Fogel, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. "Baby learns he can walk away from Mom and walk back when he wants to -- suddenly he is in control of his own destiny." But that's really just the very beginning. At around 18 months, your child reaches the "my way or the highway" stage: There are a number of tasks he can do, but not with any real skill, and your participation is probably not welcome.
So where does all this confidence come from? At this age, a large variety of skills start to come together. Your child's increasing vocabulary allows him to tell you what he wants. He's been walking long enough so that he feels surefooted; his small- and large-motor skills work together more smoothly; and he's handled enough tasks, such as making a block tower, that he feels pretty confident about mastering his environment.
That's great, but there are lots of things that your toddler can't do very well. He's not able to judge what kinds of tasks are too difficult for him to complete, and he certainly doesn't have enough control over his emotions to deal gracefully with obstacles to his independence. To compound all of this, he's less than thrilled when you try to help him along or secure his safety. (He doesn't yet understand that climbing up the front of the fridge could be disastrous.) So each day can bring a new victory -- or frustration -- as your child balances what he wants to do with what he can do. Every day is an internal battle for him over who's in charge: him or others.