The Independent Toddler: “Look Mom, I can do it by myself!”

Our 2 ½ year old has gone on an independent streak. He wants to do everything by himself… and I mean EVERYTHING! Eating, climbing steps, getting into his car seat, tracing his letters, even (pretending to) use Daddy’s camera…


While his independent streak is partly relieving (there’s more time when he can engage in activities without needing us helping every step of the way), it can also get a little frustrating, especially when Charbel is refusing help that he still needs. He is a very capable 2-year-old that has discovered new abilities, but he’s still a 2-year-old…


It’s amazing to see our kids grow up, day by day, especially when they go through sudden developmental spurts. I feel a special sort of parental pride at seeing him discover himself more and more. He is now fully aware that he is his own individual, with his own feelings, thoughts and desires. Every time he asserts himself I realize that he is trying to understand. Even when he crosses Eddy or I, refusing to do something or insisting on his own way, he isn’t really “rebelling” because rebellion requires an intentional conflict. He is simply discovering more of who he is and trying to assert himself as an individual. He has not yet learned the limits and responsibilities that go along with his newly discovered freedom (who has at 2?!). When I see his own personality developing and emerging so clearly, I want to guide him gently but firmly, helping him continue discovering who he is, but also helping him little by little learn the boundaries in life, whether they are physical limitations, or boundaries set by ethics, values and beliefs…

At the same time, no matter how much I try to keep patience, when I’m facing a child who’s is crying because he wants to do something by himself, has met his limits, but still doesn’t want help, it gets frustrating. I want, or need to just step in and get the job done… Anybody relate?

First, I keep reminding myself of how much I love this little face!


Then, I’ve been using the following strategies:

Empower him to be as independent as possible, while running into as few frustrations as possible.  We’ve started getting him cups and dishes that are “real” but easier for him to use. He still can’t put most of his shoes on, but he has one pair of sandals that he can…


I found some easy-to-open tupperware that he can unclasp. We use one for his crayons, so he can get them “on his own”.


I use another one to put his snacks in on trips, again, so he can serve himself. It takes a little foresight, taking the time to find things that challenge him and help him develop skills and motor coordination but are possible for him to use/do on his own.  Obviously, I can’t always make everything 2-year-old friendly, and there are plenty of times when he just has to accept help, but we’ve found that finding as many ways to support him in learning how to do things by himself really pays off – both in the skills he develops, and in the pride/satisfaction he feels at being able to do things on his own and having his “responsibilities” (right now, responsibilities = cleaning up toys, putting his dirty dishes in the sink, bringing the step to the sink to wash his hands, etc.).

Help him realize that being helped is normal for all of us. While I want to empower Charbel to continue discovering himself and developing his capabilities more and more, I also want him to learn that there is nothing wrong with receiving help. This is a lesson he needs to know for life, since all of us continue receiving help in one form or another, and a way to help dissipate the frustrations he feels now when Eddy and I start to help him with something. It’s hard to teach abstract concepts to a 2-year-old that still has a limited vocabulary, but we try! Usually he responds pretty well and accepts the help (without a meltdown), if we show him at the same time that he can also help others (e.g. Mommy is going to help put your shoes on, and then you can help Mommy carry this to the car)… This takes his attention off of what he can’t do on his own to something that he can do on his own…

Set clear expectations and consequences that he can rely on. I try to focus on what he really wants when he gets upset over being helped. Usually it’s because he wants to master something. He has an idea of how something is done, but hasn’t succeeded at it yet. When I have to say “no” and move him along or do something for him, I try to address his desire to practice the skill. For example, if I have to push past his efforts to put his shoes on so we can make it out the door to school on time, I tell him “I’m going to help you put your shoes on this time, but you can practice putting them on yourself this afternoon.” He has begun to understand that “later” is not the same as “never,” so this usually works – it gives him the security that he may keep trying on his own, just not now. Similarly, sometimes we make rules like “Mommy has to help you with your sneakers, but next time you wear your sandals, you may put them on yourself” or “I need to help you when you drink out of the glass cup, but when we’re home, you may hold your plastic one on your own.” When the expectations are clear, and he understands when he may practice being independent, he usually responds much better with what’s coming next…

Distract him with what’s coming next. Charbel does have his priorities, and if he sees something coming up as more important than learning how to do “x” by himself, he comes running for help so he can finish as quickly as possible and move on to what he wants to do. If, for example, he’s giving me grief over helping him get dressed and I tell him that he has to get dressed so he can go in the car with grandpa, or go downstairs and eat, he suddenly starts running around the room, bringing me his clothes and shoes as quickly and asking me to help him so he can go (eat, see grandpa, etc.) as soon as possible. Alternatively, I distract him with a story, book or toy that can occupy him so he doesn’t focus as much on the fact that I’m doing something instead of him.

In the end, meltdowns aren’t completely avoidable. These strategies help us a lot, but not always. When all else fails, we just move forward with what we have to do, even if it means having a screaming toddler for a little while. Once the objective is met (he’s dressed, clean, in the car, whatever it may be), we try to help him recuperate from his tantrum and get distracted again as soon as possible. Keeping a “Raffi” kids’ songs CD in the car at all times helps a lot!

Luckily, although Paul is starting to do more and more on his own, he hasn’t yet entered the “I do it on my own at all costs” stage… When the food is slippery and doesn’t stay on the spoon well, he still lets me help him!


And, because I just can’t get enough of the two of them, here are a few more pictures of our little ones!


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