The little toddler that could: autonomy in toddlerhood

Toddlers naturally strive for independence and control. You have the power to help foster autonomy in your toddler and prepare them to make it up any mountain.

Giving your child tasks to complete gives them feelings of independence. Photo credit:
Giving your child tasks to complete gives them feelings of independence. Photo credit:

No! Mine! I do it! We’ve all heard toddlers declaring their independence with a steely resolve. They will try by any means necessary to communicate and claim their autonomy. From the eyes of a toddler, much of the world is outside of their control. Toddlers do not often get to decide where they go, what they eat, and who they interact with. This lack of control can facilitate loud displays of liberation from your little one.

Toddlers are much like The Little Engine That Could, faced with mountainous tasks they are driven to succeed independently with a sometimes singular mind or goal and they are not prepared to let any mountain (or grown up) get in their way. This often seems to happen in the middle of a crowded grocery store in front of 100 other people. As awkward as these situations can seem, the desire to recognize and claim little bits of autonomy from adults is typical and expected in toddlers.

Autonomy is a completely normal internal drive. Between the ages of one and three, children are experiencing rapid growth and development in all areas. As their cognitive, or thinking, skills progress they are learning about cause and effect, experimenting with how their actions impact their environment (i.e. what happens if I throw my cup on the floor). Along with this cognitive development, they are refining their motor skills and increasing their control of their bodies. If you combine this cognitive and motor development with natural curiosity and high energy, you get a toddler desperate to control the world around them.

So, what is a parent to do with an inquisitive and persistent toddler? Try these tips from Michigan State University Extension to help foster autonomy in your toddler.

Create Opportunities for autonomy. You can create opportunities for your child to be successful. If you know your child enjoys getting their own snacks, place them on a shelf that your child can reach. Let your child practice brushing their teeth (before or after you brush them also!). It is also helpful to give them opportunities to manipulate their environment. As frustrating as it can be for a parent—let them dump the blocks on the floor or pull all the books off the bookshelf. When they are done you can model helpful skills by asking them to help put them away.

Put them to work. Toddlers are constantly on the go, and sometimes this energy can get them (or you) into trouble. Giving your child tasks to complete can channel their energy and also give them feelings of independence. You could ask your child to help carry groceries from the shelf to the cart, bring packages into the house, fold laundry, feed the dog or let them carry the mail inside. Just like adults feel a sense of satisfaction after completing a difficult task, you toddler will feel accomplished and proud when they work hard.

Give Choices. Everybody wants control, and so much of a toddler’s life is out of their control. Whenever you can give your toddler a choice you are not only giving them power, but you are actively teaching them decision-making skills. No matter how small the task, if you can give your toddler a choice—go for it. Whether it’s what they will eat for snack time, which book to read, or even what to wear. There are certainly times when choices are not at all appropriate (like holding an adult’s hand when crossing the street), but in some of these instances you can give your child a limited choice. If it’s cold outside and a short-sleeve shirt is not appropriate, pick out two or three long-sleeve shirt and let your child choose.

Acknowledge, name and recognize their emotions. Toddlers get easily frustrated when they fail to complete a task. They may cry, throw a tantrum or display acts of anger. This is all part of the standard toddler experience. In order to help your child develop positive social emotional coping skills it is important to help them name these emotions, while also teaching them that a healthy expression of emotions is good. When your toddler cries because they can’t take the lid off of a cup you can comfort them “You’re so sad that you can’t get your lid off.” Would you like some help?” When your child stomps their feet and yells, you can say “You are so angry. You are stomping your feet. It is ok to be angry.” Sometimes children just need time to express these emotions. In this case, help them know that you are there to comfort them whenever they are ready.

Giving your child opportunities to practice independence and experience autonomy helps them create a sense of mastery over their body, their mind and their environment. This supports independent and critical thinking, encourages intrinsic motivation and inspires confidence.

While the path may include hills and valleys you can help your little engine make it through anything. By fostering skills for independence you are telling them: “I know you can. I know you can. I know you can!”

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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