From the moment they are born, our children are working towards independence. And never is this more true than during the toddler and preschool years. In fact, probably the most common phrase you will hear from a child during this stage of development (after “No” of course!) is “I can do it myself!”
This is because, as children transition from toddlerhood to preschool age, they are working hard on developing their autonomy and independence. They are starting to perform basic actions on their own and making simple decisions about what they prefer. And at this point in their psychosocial development, children need to learn that they can assert power and control over both themselves and the world.
To do this, they need to practice doing things on their own and exploring their abilities. And as they start to take initiative in planning activities, completing tasks, and solving problems, it is important for parents and caregivers to support these new skills.
The role of parents in the development of independence
In my clinical work with parents, I have found that they tend to gravitate towards one of two extremes during this stage of their child’s development. They might struggle to allow their children independence and over-direct them, resulting in frequent power struggles or children who do not develop a sense of confidence in their own abilities. Or, they allow children too much control and push for independence before children are ready or able, which again, can lead to children who do not have confidence in themselves, but also have little trust in others. These children may feel that they should be able to do things without asking for help and therefore interpret mistakes as personal failures rather than opportunities for learning.
The challenge for parents during this stage is to strike a balance between enforcing safe boundaries and encouraging children to make good choices, while also allowing children the opportunity and freedom to make those choices for themselves. This stage is very much about following your child’s lead, responding to their cues, and doing things WITH children rather than for or to them.
By allowing children to make choices and have a sense of control, parents can help children develop a sense of autonomy, which leads to them feeling secure and confident. Here are some ways to do that.
How to encourage independence and autonomy in children
1) Follow a consistent routine
Having reliable, consistent routines in place, helps children to develop independence. Regular routines allow children to anticipate what comes next. They give them the opportunity to practice the same skills over and over, and as they gradually develop mastery, they can take more and more responsibility for the steps in the routine, with less help from you.
So create routines around things like bedtime, bath time, getting ready in the morning, or setting up for meals. As the steps in these repeated routines become more familiar to your child, they will feel more confident to approach them on their own, with support from you as needed.
2) Let them help
Toddlers are naturally helpful. But research has actually shown that parents tend to train toddlers out of this helpfulness. And that’s because it is often easier to do tasks alone! It is generally faster, less messy, and much less frustrating for us as parents. But allowing children to help us with tasks like sweeping, watering plants, cooking, or folding laundry, sends a message to children that we trust them with these activities and believe they can do it. This helps them learn new skills, helps them feel that they belong and are an important member of the family, and boosts their confidence
And of course, as their skills develop further, we can gradually afford them more and more responsibility until they are able to complete these tasks on their own, or with minimal assistance from us.
3) Allow them to take risks
Risk-taking is another important opportunity to let children know we trust them and believe they are capable and competent. It also helps children develop self-regulation as they constantly monitor and manage their arousal levels and learn about their own limits.
Our job as parents is, of course, to ensure these risks are developmentally appropriate, and to remain close by to coach and encourage our children. We can do this by remaining curious, asking them about their plans, helping them assess risk, prompting them to anticipate and plan for challenges they might encounter, and even modeling the skill for them first before allowing them opportunities to practice.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the more measured, supported risks a child is encouraged to take when they are young, the better they become at assessing danger and keeping themselves safe as they grow.
4) Let them struggle (a little)
As parents, it is difficult to watch our children struggle. We don’t enjoy seeing them distressed, and it is tempting to jump in and rescue them when they are facing a difficult task that is causing frustration or upset. But giving children the space to work on challenges and solve problems allows them to develop both independence and confidence.
This is not to say of course, that we shouldn’t offer help to children who are struggling. But the key is to know when to step in, and how. Rather than immediately putting the puzzle piece in the right spot for them, we may wait a few moments while they try to work it out. Then, we might make some suggestions or ask some questions that will help them solve the problem themselves. This helps your child learn how to manage frustration, develop problem-solving skills, and work on self-regulation skills too.
If children are never allowed an opportunity to face challenges, they never learn how to deal with them, and their sense of self and belief in themselves may suffer as a result.
5) Provide them with choices
Children need to make choices and have some agency in their own lives. Providing them with age-appropriate choices helps children feel a sense of power and allows them to feel they have control over themselves and the world.
We can give children choices around what to wear, what to eat, what to play, or even where to go. But the key thing to remember when offering our children choice is to provide them with a few appropriate options, rather than giving them free reign. Children still need to feel contained, and too much choice can feel unsafe for children – too much power and responsibility is overwhelming for young children (or for anyone really!). Try offering a choice between two outfits, the option to go to the park before or after lunch, or a choice between holding your hand or being carried across the road. All of these options ensure your child feels empowered, but also keep everyone safe.
6) Give them chores
Chores are a great opportunity to help children develop independence and a sense of responsibility. They help children feel important, boost confidence, build empathy, and contribute to the sense of belonging. Young children often love having chores as it helps them feel that they are being helpful and contributing something valuable to the family. They love feeling part of the team!
Even young children can have simple chores like setting the table, putting their clothes in the laundry hamper, packing away their toys, or watering the plants. When you first introduce these chores to your child, do them together, model the skills, and then follow your child’s lead. As they become more confident, they will begin to do more and more on their own, and you will be able to step back until you eventually find yourself a bystander in the whole process!
Play is without a doubt the most beneficial way of helping children develop autonomy and independence. During play, children work on their problem-solving skills, regulation skills and social skills. During free play in particular, children are able to make choices, initiate tasks, practice skills, explore their identity through role-playing, and use their imagination in any way they choose.
Our job as parents, unless we are specifically invited in by our child, is to simply encourage and observe this kind of play. Provide opportunities and resources for your child to engage in play and remain close by to observe. But try to resist the temptation to intervene or make judgments about your child’s play. If you want to comment, simply observe what you see, and if you are invited to play, follow your child’s lead.
Play truly is the work of childhood, and too much intervention on our part can undermine their confidence and trust in themselves and make them too reliant on us to entertain them.
8) Follow their cues
Above all else, it is our job as parents to respond to our children and follow their lead. When children are exploring their capabilities and learning new skills, they still need us close by. Monitoring their arousal levels, assessing risk, modeling, demonstrating, listening, watching, encouraging, supporting, and practicing – together.
Rather than jumping in and directing our children, it is always helpful to pause and ask ourselves a few questions. Are we responding to their cues? Are we pushing them to do something they are not ready for? Are we making assumptions? Are we jumping in to ease our own anxiety or fear? What do they need from us at this moment?
Ultimately, children learn independence first through dependence. When children have responsive caregivers who follow their lead and meet their needs – most of the time – they develop the skills they need to be independent, confident problem solvers. And eventually, capable adults who contribute to the world in a positive way.
Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in kids and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.