At my daughter's 2-year checkup, the doctor asked about her budding skills. Was she talking in sentences? Check. Running? Check. Using utensils? Uh ... not so much -- I preferred to avoid the mess. Realizing it was silly to stop her from mastering something new, I opted to let her take over at mealtime, and she got the hang of it. Lesson learned: As tempting as it may be to baby your child, it's critical to help her develop confidence in her abilities. Let your kid build skills by working on these following activities independently.
Having your child eat his oatmeal on his own lets him sharpen his fine motor skills, gives him control over the foods he puts in his mouth, and teaches him to regulate his appetite, says child psychologist Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D. You should still supervise him, and step in if he gets discouraged. It's fine to set limits: If you have to scrub the walls after every meal, you may want to let him self-feed only one meal a day. You can also have him practice eating dry foods by himself and give him a hand with sticky, drippy ones. End the session when he stops eating and starts tossing food.
Your toddler loves your attention, but she needs time on her own too. "If you do everything with her, she won't learn to see what she can do for herself," points out Kate Eshleman, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children's. Instead of helping her build a block tower, watch her do it. So what if her project tumbles and she starts crying? Frustration and failure are normal parts of growth, and your child needs to figure out how to manage them, says Dr. Eshleman. If she asks for assistance with the shape sorter, you might say, "Let me see you do it. If you have trouble, I'll help." Encouraging your child to master it by herself will boost her sense of competence and inspire her to try other things on her own.
It's never too early to introduce the idea that your child is a valued member of the family who has something to contribute. A great way to demonstrate this is to enlist his assistance with simple tasks, such as putting toys away in bins (singing the "Clean Up" song will motivate him), hanging his coat on a hook at his level, and bringing his empty bowl to the kitchen. Don't expect your little helper to save you any time. Your goal is to boost his sense of responsibility and accomplishment, says Dr. Wittenberg.
Finger-painting and squishing Play-Doh are great for advancing your child's cognitive and motor skills. Using different mediums (such as crayons, shaving cream, and paint) and tools (brushes, paste, and glitter) fosters creativity and coordination. Art projects can even improve writing skills later on, since they help strengthen a toddler's hand muscles, notes Dr. Eshleman. Let your kid take the lead on projects, deciding which colors to use and shapes to make. When she shows you an abstract scribble, ask what it is rather than labeling the drawing yourself. If you prefer not to turn your kitchen into a splattered art studio, put down newspaper before you start a project, or set up a station in the yard or the basement.
Your toddler may start taking his clothes off without your help, but putting them on is trickier. Still, he's probably ready to start learning by age 2. The best approach: See how much he can do. He might be able to slip on his shoes (and then have you fasten the Velcro), get his arms into his jacket sleeves, or put his head through a shirt hole. Demonstrate how each step is done, praise your child for his effort, and help him finish the job. But avoid becoming hamstrung by his DIY desire when you're in a rush to get out the door. Dr. Wittenberg suggests telling your child that he needs to let you help him on busy weekday mornings, but that at other times he can practice dressing himself all he wants.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Parents magazine.