Toddlers are far more capable than we parents often give them credit for. Kids spend half their time trying to do things, and parents often spend half their time stopping them…
“Don’t touch that.”
“Close the refrigerator.”
“Don’t open the cabinet.”
Sound familiar? Don’t feel bad – that’s instinctive for parents. Instinctive for two reasons:
Reason #1: We want to protect our kids from all harm. That’s a worthy desire, but wrong on two accounts. After all, how likely is it really that a monster is going to jump out of the cabinet and gobble them up? More importantly, caring as our “save-our-children-from-all-woe” instinct may be, fact is – we can’t protect them from everything. No matter how hard we try. So the best thing isn’t really trying to protect them from every mishap, but teaching them how to react to mishaps and how to handle mistakes. “You opened the cabinet door too quickly? Whoops – the tupperware fell out. Let’s pick them up, put them back in and practice opening the door slowly.” There. Now you’ve taught them:
- You made a mistake.
- It’s OK to make a mistake. You can learn from it.
- Mistakes have consequences. You help fix the consequences.
Expect to click “repeat” day in and day out for a few days…months… OK, YEARS. You’ll be exhausted and you may have some broken vases or dishes along the way, but in the end, you’ll have a self-confident, and wise child who knows how to express themselves, take risks, deal with their mistakes, learn and live.
Reason #2: Sometimes we stop our kids from doing things even when there’s no possibility of harm… not because it’s wrong for our kids to do it but because either:
- It’s that much faster for us to do it ourselves
- We can do a better job (come on, that’s about 100% of the time, right?) ourselves, OR…
- It doesn’t occur to us that they’re capable
Take my 2 ½ year old. If I hadn’t walked into the kitchen one day a couple of weeks ago and found him standing on his step at the sink, washing his cup (seriously – he had taken his cup off the table in the dining room, brought the step and cup into the kitchen, got up on the step, reached into my soap and sponge bucket, took the sponge, and began washing his cup), it would never have occurred to me that he could already do that. I would never have thought to ask him to try, and if I had seen him pulling his step toward the sink, I probably wouldn’t have let him try, all because of a false presumption on my side that “a two-year-old can’t wash dishes.”
SURPRISE! Yes, they can. No – they can’t wash them as perfectly as you can. But they can wash them, especially if you’re in the kitchen at the same time helping them. Charbel has shown me that he can do a lot of other things too, like help me hang up the laundry on the rack to dry, put his dirty clothes in the kids’ hamper (on his own initiative – he recognizes when his clothes are dirty and takes them there), getting his shoes and putting things away, cleaning up his own toys, etc.
Am I bragging? Maybe a little bit – I’m mighty proud of our little one. But not really – because Charbel isn’t the exception. He’s VERY special, the BEST little two-year-old boy out there (I’m his mother; I would know!). But in this regards, he’s not the exception. He’s not the only 2 ½ year old out there that is MUCH MORE CAPABLE than his parents give him credit for.
Since noticing these things, I’ve started giving Charbel lots of little tasks to help with (sweeping with a little hand broom, helping with dishes and laundry, etc.), and he’s THRIVING. He loves the responsibility and the challenge.
There are SO many advantages to letting your little one discover what they are capable of instead of stopping them from doing things – I can’t even begin to get through them all…
- It makes them oh, so proud of themselves.
- It gives them many more opportunities to develop their skills that you otherwise would.
- It actually “pays off” and, after a while, starts to give you a bit of a break (DON’T expect this at the beginning, because first it takes A LOT of you working WITH your toddler as he learns basic tasks).
- It gets them used to participating in the family. You know, helping out becomes something normal. “Chores” won’t be a negative reality that surprises and horrifies them when they’re 6. Helping mommy, daddy and baby sibling will go back as far as they remember – just part of being in the family…
And the list goes on…
There are definitely challenges involved including, as a I already mentioned, the amount of time you need to be willing to spend with your child, teaching him when he wants to try things that he is partially capable of doing. It will take a while of you helping them with the activity before they are secure enough and capable enough to do it on your own without you (I’m still with Charbel at the sink every time he washes the dishes, and will be for a while longer, but I let him do it and just help when he needs me. I don’t take over…).
It also means sometimes rearranging things to make it possible for them to practice their skills and participate without any real danger (I’ve bought a set of light, plastic plates, cups and silverware because he wanted to start helping with the dishes, but I’d feel irresponsible letting him try with our normal heavy ones that could actually hurt him if he dropped one). You have to be very patient and let the final product be less perfect than what you could do (but enough to meet the objective) so your child has the satisfaction of truly knowing they helped with something…
But it pays off… A happy, capable, satisfied and helpful child is well worth the care and dedication it takes! Try to find out how capable your toddler is and let them use those abilities. They’ll show you pretty quickly when you start watching to see what they plan on doing before deciding they can’t do it!