Developing autonomy

Developing 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.

How does autonomy develop?

When babies start being able to move around on their own, they want to explore, but they’re afraid of going too far. This is why babies tend to explore for only brief periods, then return to their parents for reassurance before setting out again. This helps them feel secure, which in turn boosts their self-confidence and supports the development of their autonomy over time.

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 strong urge 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.

Even if your child initially struggles to do certain things, you can help them believe in themself by encouraging them to keep trying. Conversely, if you criticize, get 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.

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!” 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 protecting your child without being overprotective.

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. If you think this might upset them, let them know ahead of time. For example, you could say: “I know you really like to get dressed by yourself. But we’re in a hurry this morning, so I’m going to help you. You might get mad and feel like crying, but I’m here for you.”

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.

It’s also okay to step in if your little one 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 around you. This gives them more confidence, which will encourage them to keep exercising their independence.

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 (with your help as needed), 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 tasks and responsibilities you can give to your child. They don’t have to be done perfectly—the goal is simply to get your child used to doing things 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 arms). 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 toy 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 perpetuating 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.
  • Helping put away the groceries.
  • 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.
  • Helping empty the dishwasher.
  • Dusting a piece of furniture (pick 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 (with supervision).

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, social, 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.

Promoting the development of autonomy

Enfant qui développe son autonomie en ramassant un dégât.
  • 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 feed themself.
  • Encourage them to do little things by themself and to practise their skills. Ask them to do things that are challenging for them, but age-appropriate. If the task is too difficult, they may not be able to do it, which could hurt their self-esteem and confidence.
  • Let your little one make choices. 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 too many options. Otherwise they may have trouble making up their mind. For example, instead of asking them to choose from all of their sweaters, have them pick between two.
  • 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 then 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 a task, explain how to do it (e.g., “See? I put the cup here and the utensils here.”). Be prepared to repeat yourself multiple times. Learning new things takes time and lots of practice.
  • Make your home child-friendly. For example, put a step stool in the bathroom so your child can reach the sink to wash their hands, and install a low hook 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 tasks without your help.
  • Accept that your child won’t do everything perfectly. For instance, if your child wants to get dressed by themself, their clothes might not match. Take pride in your little one’s growing independence rather than dwelling on minor hiccups. Just make sure their clothes are weather-appropriate.
  • Don’t despair over mistakes and messes. If your child spills a bit of milk while pouring themself a glass, don’t scold them. Instead, ask them to help you clean it up. Make sure they understand that cleaning isn’t a punishment, but just a normal part of making a mess.
Parents reflect on their child’s journey to autonomy.
  • Comfort your child if they start to cry or get mad because of a task they’re struggling with.
  • Praise your little one 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. If your child tried and failed to do something by themself, your encouragement will make them feel seen and motivate them to persevere.
  • Offer guidance rather than doing everything for them once they’re over age 3. For example, if their coat is inside out and they can’t put it on, don’t fix it for them. Instead, ask them questions to help them find a solution, such as: “Wow, that looks tricky . . . Do you see where the sleeves are?” In other situations, you can 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?”
  • If your child is over age 3, encourage them to find 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, such as “Where could it be hiding?” “Where did you last see it?” or “What rooms have you looked in?”

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: April 2024

Photos: and GettyImages/Halfpoint

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • Duclos, Germain, and Martin Duclos. Enfants et ados responsables : miser sur une saine discipline. “Parlons Parents” series, Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2021, 222 pp.
  • Ferland, Francine. Le développement de l’enfant au quotidien : de 0 à 6 ans. 2nd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 264 pp.
  • Filliozat, Isabelle. « J’ai tout essayé! » Opposition, pleurs et crises de rage : traverser sans dommage la période de 1 à 5 ans. New edition, Paris, Marabout, 2019, 256 pp.
  • Hamel, Sarah. Le ti-pou d’Amérique : mieux le comprendre pour mieux intervenir. Laval, Guy Saint-Jean Éditeur, 2022, 182 pp.
  • MacNamara, Deborah. Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or Anyone Who Acts Like One). Aona Books, 2016, 304 pp.
  • Canadian Paediatric Society. Caring for Kids. “Your child’s development: What to expect.” 2019.
  • WebMD. “4- to 5-Year-Olds: Developmental Milestones.” 2022.