Taking time to train toddlers on "grown up" tasks builds their sense of independence, says Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. "Identify one new task per week that your child could do with some training. Divide the task into steps and train the child on how to do it -- then make it 'his job.' These tasks may seem simple to us, but they help our kids develop a sense of confidence." For example, younger toddlers can learn how to clean up their play area and put dirty clothes in the hamper, while older kids can help clear the dinner table and make their beds.
Even if the end result isn't stellar, let your little one know that you appreciate his hard work -- and encourage him to keep trying, says Dr. Frances Walfish, a child and parent psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. "Toddlerhood is a crucial time and the precursor to adolescence, so parents should praise even the smallest accomplishments at first -- putting on their socks, pouring their own juice -- to advance them on the path to self-reliance."
Part of being independent is being able to make decisions for yourself, so let your toddler make some of his own choices throughout the day. "The key is not to ask open-ended questions that can get you into trouble," says Laura Olson, a former teacher and the vice president of education for Kiddie Academy, a national child care and education franchise. "Narrow down the options first: 'Would you like peanut butter and jelly or macaroni and cheese for lunch?' They're making the final decision, but you're still in control."
"Never do for a child what he can do for himself," says Michelle La Rowe, a former nanny and author of A Mom's Ultimate Book of Lists. Allow your toddler to tie his shoes, pour his own cereal, and put on his coat in the morning (if he can't zip it on his own, start it off for him and then let him finish the job). Running low on time? Set the alarm clock for 15 minutes earlier so you can give your child the extra time he needs to complete his tasks.
Create opportunities for your toddler to be independent by placing things at her level. Put bowls, snacks, cups, etc., on the lowest shelf so she can serve herself without needing help. Pour milk into small plastic pitchers so she can pour her own milk. "Watch your child's daily routine and ask yourself, 'What changes can I make to allow him to complete this task without my help?' " says Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions.
"Some parents tend to do all of the talking when it comes to goals or feedback," says Tricia Ferrara, a family therapist and creator of the Parenting in the 21st Century audio series. "This can block a child's opportunity to develop the vital, language-based skill of self-direction." So instead of telling children what to do, have them tell you what they are going to do -- it gives them ownership of the challenge. Of course, if they do need some suggestions or help on how to complete a task, it's OK to step in and offer assistance.
Instead of seeing mistakes as a failure, look at them as an opportunity for your child to learn something new, says Dr. Sam Goldstein, coauthor of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. "You don't want them to be afraid of making mistakes -- they need to realize it is a part of life. When your child doesn't succeed at something, be sure to speak in problem-solving ways. Instead of saying, 'I told you not to do it that way,' say something like, 'Let's try to do that part again and see if we can make it work.' "
If you go in to improve everything your toddler has done, it will damage her self-esteem -- and most likely deter her from doing that particular task in the future. "If you really can't leave it as is, approach the situation by saying something like, 'I hadn't thought to do it that way. Would you like to see how I would do it?' " suggests Dr. Lynne Milliner, a pediatrician with Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland. "If that doesn't work, you can always go back and fix it later."
Copyright © 2010 Meredith Corporation.