The journey to autonomy

The journey to autonomy
“No, I want to do it by myself!” Why do kids want to do everything on their own—even when they can’t?

A newborn baby is completely dependent on their parents. Their autonomy starts to emerge with early milestones such as learning to creep, crawl, and grasp objects. These are the first stages in a years-long journey toward independence.

Be supportive without being overprotective

As an infant’s motor skills improve (e.g., crawling, walking), they become capable of exploring more and more of their environment. This means that they can wander away from their parents, an exciting new skill that can nevertheless cause some degree of anxiety: on the one hand, they want to explore, but on the other hand, they’re afraid to go too far. This is why babies tend to explore for only brief periods before returning to their parents; they need to feel secure before setting out again. You can increase your child’s self-confidence by comforting them when they come back to you. This will help them slowly build up their autonomy.

As children develop autonomy, they gain a sense of power over themselves, objects, and other people.

Between 18 and 36 months of age, children start to feel a need to do things on their own. At the same time, they aren’t sure if they can really do them. They still need encouragement and a sense that their parents believe they can do what they’ve set their mind to, whether that’s eating by themself, getting dressed, or putting away their toys.

Gaining autonomy is essential to early childhood development. It’s a process of trial and error that comes with its share of tears and triumphs.

In an effort to protect their little one or save them from frustration, some parents occasionally try to curb their child’s budding autonomy. While they mean well, their actions can often lead to tantrums and cries of “No, I want to do it by myself!”

Parents reflect on their child’s journey to autonomy (in French).

Even if your child initially struggles to do certain things, you can help them believe in themself by encouraging them to keep trying. But it’s important to strike the right balance. If you criticize, become impatient with, or punish your child when they have a hard time with something, they may end up feeling ashamed and demoralized, which could hamper their growing autonomy. If you’re overprotective, your child may become anxious, insecure, fearful, and unable to think on their feet.

For more information, read our fact sheet on Protect without overprotecting.

When should parents step in?

Every child has to learn to become more independent, but that doesn’t mean they should always be allowed to do things on their own. For example, if your little one successfully gets dressed by themself one morning, you shouldn’t assume that they’ll always get it right from now on and that they no longer need your help and support. Similarly, if you dress your child yourself one day because you’re simply in too much of a rush, don’t sweat it. Explain what’s going on and let your child know that they can get dressed on their own tomorrow.

It’s also okay to step in if your child is tuckered out and, say, having trouble putting on their pajamas. Tell them that you’ll help them this time, but they can try again some other night when they’re less tired. When you acknowledge your child’s needs, they feel understood and respected. They learn that they can be themself with their parent. This gives them more confidence, which in the long run will encourage them to keep exercising their independence.

It’s best to give your child opportunities to practise new skills at times when they’re open to learning and you’re available to lend a hand if needed.

Though parents initially play an important role in nudging young children along the path to autonomy, kids steadily learn to motivate themselves to make choices and decide what to do. Little by little, they realize that they’re capable of making their own decisions and controlling their own actions. This gives them a sense of pride as they start to feel competent and self-sufficient.

Small responsibilities with a big payoff

When you let your child do small tasks on their own (while always reminding them that you’re there if they need you), they become aware of their strengths and limitations. Over time, they gain self-esteem as well as a sense of responsibility.

Here are some examples of responsibilities you can give to your child. Focus on taking things a step at a time. The tasks don’t have to be done perfectly; the goal is simply to get your child used to doing them on their own.

Age 18 months to 3 years

  • Helping set the table. Start by asking your child to lay out only their plate, cup, and utensils.
  • Washing some parts of their body at bath time (e.g., their tummy and bum). Show them how to add soap to the washcloth, lather up, and then rinse.
  • Taking their toys out of the bathtub (link in French).
  • Washing and drying their hands (with supervision).
  • Wiping up a small spill on the table or floor (e.g., a bit of water or milk).
  • Putting their toys away with your help. Describe what you’re doing out loud to help your child learn where things go: “I’m putting the book on the bookcase,” “I’m putting the toy cars in the chest,” “I’m putting the stuffed animals in the basket,” etc.
  • Helping fold washcloths and sort socks when they come out of the dryer.
Avoid gender stereotypes when assigning responsibilities to your child. For example, you can ask your son to sweep the floor while your daughter helps you shovel the walkway.

Age 3 to 4 years

  • Hanging their coat up on a hook that’s within their reach.
  • Folding their clothes and putting them in their dresser.
  • Putting their dirty laundry in the laundry basket.
  • Clearing their place at the dinner table.
  • Measuring out the dry ingredients for a recipe and then mixing them in a bowl.

Age 4 to 5 years

  • Pouring themself a glass of milk.
  • Helping set and clear the table.
  • Dusting a piece of furniture (one without anything on it).
  • Taking a bath by themself (with supervision).
  • Making their bed (with help at first).
  • Helping make breakfast (e.g., putting bread in the toaster and pouring cereal or yogurt into a bowl).
  • Feeding the family pet.
The various facets of autonomy
Autonomy isn’t just about what your child can do on their own. It also has to do with their language skills and their cognitive, socio-emotional, and moral development. For example, when your child learns a new word or says “Want water!” for the first time, they’re developing language autonomy. When they start asking questions, learn to sort their toy cars by colour, and understand that objects still exist when they’re out of sight, they’re developing cognitive autonomy. And when they begin expressing preferences, following instructions, enjoying other children’s company, and playing alone for short periods, they’re gradually developing social, emotional, and moral autonomy.

Advice on helping your child achieve autonomy

  • Go at your child’s pace and pay attention to the signals they send you. For example, if they wriggle while you’re holding them, that may be a sign that they want to try getting around on their own. If they grab the spoon while you’re feeding them, they may want to try feeding themself.
  • Encourage them to do little things by themself and to practise their skills. However, no matter how eager you are for your child to become more independent, make sure that any tasks and challenges they take on match their age and ability; otherwise, you risk setting your child up for failure, which could hurt their self-esteem and confidence.
  • Give them options. Not only will this help your child learn to make decisions, but it will satisfy their need for autonomy and give them a sense of control over what happens to them. That being said, avoid giving them more than two options; otherwise, they may have trouble making up their mind (e.g., “Do you want to wear your blue sweater or your green sweater?”).
  • Teach them how to do things. Instead of carrying your 2-year-old up or down the stairs for example, show them how to climb the steps on their own and let them give it a shot, staying by their side in case they need help. Similarly, if you want your child to help you with certain tasks, explain how you do them (e.g., “You see, I put the cup here and the utensils here.”). Be prepared to repeat yourself often. Learning new things takes time and lots of repetition.
  • Make your home child-friendly. For example, put a stool in the bathroom so your child can reach the sink to wash their hands, and install low hooks in the entryway so they can hang up their coat by themself. In addition, keep fragile items, medications, and cleaning products out of your little one’s reach so they can explore safely.
  • Always allow an extra 10 minutes in your schedule when your child starts to do things on their own. You’ll get back the time you devote to fostering your child’s autonomy later, when they’re able to do more things without your help.
  • Don’t expect perfection. For instance, embrace the fact that if your child wants to get dressed by themself, they may not always pick the best colour combinations. Take pride in your little one’s growing independence rather than dwelling on minor hiccups.
  • Accept mistakes and messes. If your child spills a bit of milk while pouring themself a glass, don’t scold them. Instead, ask if they wouldn’t mind helping you clean it up. Make sure they understand that cleaning isn’t a punishment, but just a normal part of making a mess.
  • Offer guidance rather than doing everything for them. If your child can’t get their coat on because they’ve put it on backwards, ask them questions to get them thinking about how to solve the problem rather than simply taking the coat and turning it right side out. For example, you might start by saying “Wow, that looks tricky . . . Do you see where the sleeves are?” In other situations, split the task with your child: “Which shoe would you like to put on by yourself? I’ll help you with the other one” or “Would you like me to put away the books or the cars?”
  • Encourage them to look for solutions. This lets your child know that you believe in them. For example, if they’re upset because they can’t find one of their shoes, ask questions that suggest how to go about finding it: “Where could it be hiding . . . Where did you last see it? What rooms have you looked in?”
  • Praise your child and encourage them by describing what they did that made you proud. For example, you might say: “Wow, you managed to button up your coat by yourself even though it was hard!” or “Great job, you put all the toys away!” Comments like these will boost your child’s self-esteem and their confidence in their abilities. Moreover, they’ll help your child memorize the action they performed. You should still praise your little one’s efforts even if they don’t entirely succeed. You can say things like “Bravo! You kept trying even though it was hard to tie your shoes!” Your encouragement will make your child feel seen and motivate them to persevere.
  • Comfort your child if they start to cry or get mad because of a task they’re struggling with.

Things to keep in mind

  • To develop autonomy, your child needs to feel that you believe in their abilities.
  • It’s important to encourage your child to do things on their own while ensuring they take on age-appropriate tasks.
  • Being supportive and respecting your child’s learning pace will help them gain confidence and become more autonomous.
Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Marie-Hélène Chalifour, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: September 2018


Photos: and GettyImages/Halfpoint


Sources and references

  • Ferland, Francine. Le développement de l’enfant au quotidien : de 0 à 6 ans. 2nd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2014, 260 pp.
  • Filliozat, Isabelle. J’ai tout essayé! Opposition, pleurs et crises de rage : traverser sans dommage la période de 1 à 5 ans. Paris, Marabout, 2013, 229 pp.
  • MacNamara, Deborah. Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or Anyone Who Acts Like One). Vancouver, Aona Books, 2016, 304 pp.