In children, independance starts as soon as they begin to crawl, walk on all fours and grab objects, and progresses steadily over several years.
Being independent means being able to take care of your own needs and to make and assume responsibility for your decisions while considering both the people around you and your environment. In children, this starts as soon as they begin to crawl, walk on all fours and grab objects, and progresses steadily over several years. The first thing that comes to mind when we think about independence is physical and motor skills: eating, getting dressed, going to the washroom, washing hands, brushing teeth, completing little tasks like putting toys away or bringing utensils to the table, etc. But independence also applies to language, intellectual or cognitive development, and social-emotional and moral development.
For example, when your child learns new words or says, “Want milk!” for the first time, he develops independent language skills. When he understands that an object still exists even when he can’t see it anymore, when he asks questions, organizes his toy cars by colour, or even turns a triangle around in every direction to make it fit in the corresponding slot, he forges intellectual independence. And when he starts to voice his preferences, follow instructions, enjoy another child’s company, express likes and dislikes, play by himself for short periods of time, he slowly consolidates social, emotional and moral independence.
Throughout this grand adventure, your role is pivotal. You are in the best position to help your child become self-reliant, even if it isn’t always easy! Lack of time is often the biggest obstacle. “In the whirlwind of everyday life, parents are always in a rush,” says psychologist Nadia Gagnier. “To save time, they tend to do everything for their child. It’s a normal reaction. But at the same time, it gets in the way of their child’s developing independence since what they’re communicating to their child is: “You can’t do it” or “You can’t do anything without me.”
The same applies if you overprotect your child, if you mollycoddle him, or if you act like one of those helicopter parents who gets involved in every activity and every detail of their child’s life, never letting him out of their sight. “This happens when you try to protect your child from non-existent or unlikely dangers, to shield him from the slightest difficulty or disappointment, to make every decision for him,” explains Gagnier. “He may become anxious, lack confidence, or become scared of everything and not very resourceful.” But rest assured: you can learn how to rear an independent child!
Becoming independent safely
Toddlers who are developing their independence need to explore their environment. This means rearranging your living space to make it safe, especially since young children have no concept of potential dangers. So make sure trinkets, fragile objects, medication and cleaning products are all out of reach, avoid placing beds or furniture near a window, and cover electrical outlets with safety covers. Helping your child become independent means letting him experiment, but always under close supervision. For example, never leave a child alone when he’s taking a bath, even if he’s learning to wash himself. And if he’s learning to go down the stairs by himself, you need to stay close by, ready to catch him if he trips.
Three errors to avoid
- Forcing your child. Before teaching your child anything, it’s always wise to wait until your child shows some interest. “Putting too much pressure on your child often results in delaying the learning,” explains Gagnier. “The child experiences stress and may then resist or oppose you.” The psychologist notes that this phenomenon is common when a parent tries to “force” their child to be potty-trained before he’s ready. If you’re concerned that your child is lagging behind in a specific regard, talk to his doctor. As a general rule of thumb, the normal age for potty-training, for example, is between 2 and 4 years old.
- Disturbing your child while he’s concentrating. When your toddler is concentrated on a task, such as buttoning up his buttons, you can observe him, but try not to get involved, even if he’s having a hard time. He’s in the process of learning to persevere and problem solve. As long as he’s calm, don’t get involved. And don’t forget to congratulate him on his effort afterwards, even if the buttons aren’t properly buttoned!
- Comparing. It’s tempting to compare a child to his brother or the little girl next door, but try not to. “This puts pressure on the child and hurts his self-esteem,” says Gagnier. “The learning associated with the comparison will be an unpleasant experience, he may then resist it.” Remember: each child is unique.