How to raise an independent toddler

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Shobana Chandran has been teaching for the past 11 years, and knows children these days are different from the ones she taught a decade ago. They are now able to do a lot more mentally, physically and socially. But one goal for educators and parents still remains the same – the ability for a child to be independent.

Raising independent children is not just about convenience for their parents. Independence means social skills, being self-reliant, learning how to decide what’s right and wrong and essentially building confidence. And here’s what I have discovered: children, then and now, are able to be independent when they are nurtured and encouraged in the right way.

So how do we cultivate independence in a toddler?

1. Give your toddler the right to make choices

Even at a young age, allow children to make simple decisions. This helps them feel empowered and eventually become confident and comfortable in making choices. When we show that we believe in their ability to decide, there is a surge of confidence and they will begin to believe in themselves.

For example:

In school, when we create an art piece, we will allow the children to choose if they would like to use the green paint or the red paint. No matter which colour they choose, we remember to give appropriate compliments – try, “You did great by choosing the green colour!” instead of just “Good job!”. This allows them to feel good about making that choice.

Here’s what you can do at home:

At home, pick out two outfits and allow your child to choose what he would want to wear that day. Sure, they might look silly or even mismatched, but let them choose and enjoy the clothes that they have picked. Clothes are a mode of self-expression, after all.

2. Allow creativity and mistakes to happen together

As Picasso would have it, “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up”. So, if they choose to get creative, give them ample room for it and praise them with appropriate feedback instead of seeing it as a mistake. Often as adults, we unknowingly stifle our children’s creativity when we immediately say “No” to everything they suggest, when we decide we know it best and take control of their every action. Choosing to say “Yes” to all requests suggests that there are no boundaries of any sort. So to the best of your ability, take the middle ground – one that gives children support and structure.

For example:

In class, we would demonstrate how to make a simple frog puppet. When it is the children’s turn to produce that same piece of craft, at times they tend to stick more eyes for the frog, or choose to put the tongue above the nose. Instead of stopping them, we give them supportive feedback such as “I love the way you’ve put the frog’s tongue on top of its nose! That’s so interesting, Judy.” Eventually they will get the learning right – but what’s important is to not put them down the moment they make a mistake.

Here’s what you could do at home:

Try baking together. Bake a batch of cookies and share some responsibilities by allowing your toddler to do the shaping and decorations. Don’t expect the cookies to look perfect but allow your child to learn and get creative and praise him for helping you in the kitchen. You may have to do another round of cleaning up afterwords, but remember, it’s the experience that matters.

3. Involve your child in purposeful work

One great way of getting children to be independent is to get them involved in whatever we are doing. Not only do you get an extra hand by doing so, but in the process, you are enabling the toddler to be responsible, capable and comfortable in doing ‘work’. Any toddler loves feeling like a ‘big’ boy or girl when he gets to do what an adult does.

For example:

In class, we get the children to help us clean up – to push the chairs aside, to lay the tables, etc. Children love doing these things. It makes them feel like a part of the team. And you could see their faces swell with pride over their work.

Here’s what you could do at home:

At home, get your toddler to help you put his toys away. You can start by role modelling where to put the toys (and for those parents who love having certain toys in certain tubs – go ahead and model it to them). Then get them to do it with you, and if they choose to place the toys in a different tub, remember, encourage them. The whole purpose was to clean up and allow them to do just that. Praise them right after for completing the chore. You can even make it a fun activity by singing his favourite songs together while performing the clean-up.

4. Encourage the child to express himself

Being able to express themselves shows how confident they are in voicing out how they  feel. And being able to do this is a sign of independence!

Even if your toddler is just blabbering or not sounding out proper words, respond positively to that and in proper sentences. Avoid blabbering back – as much as we want to acknowledge every sound they make, we also want to teach them standard language, which ever that language is. What is important is to acknowledge their every expression – be it verbal, emotionally or physical. That is the basis to getting them to speaking confidently. Once they are able to utter a few words, get them to start using their words to voice out what they want and what they feel.

Here’s what you could do at home:

At home, once in a while, skip preparation of that morning snack and see if your toddler runs up to you to tell you he is hungry, or that he wants his fruits.


5. Expose them to different environments

One danger in keeping a child constantly at home is that he or she gets so comfortable with the setting and environment that once he is taken out of familiar grounds, he becomes anxious, fearful, and is unable to settle.

Here’s my advice: introduce your little ones to different environments and people from a young age. Try participating in different playgroups, and exposing them to meaningful experiences, and even social gatherings that are attended by both children and adults. This way, it would be a lot easier for them to settle and transition into any independent programme.

Even in class, when a child has become comfortable in a classroom setting, he is exposed to field trips, picnics, and what we love most over at Julia Gabriel Education – our drama time! During drama, children are given the opportunity to meet different characters in different situations and settings. Through this exposure, we have seen children overcome fear!

Try these few tips at home – and review them to see which allows your toddler to be a lot more independent at home. Remember, enabling a child to be independent starts with us – an enabling parent nurtures an independent child!

About the writer: Shobana Chandran

Shobana, fondly known as ‘Shoby’, believes that learning is a lifelong experience and one that should be undertaken in an active collaboration between the parents, teachers and the child.

Shoby is currently Julia Gabriel Centre’s Head of Enrichment Programmes, and over the decade that she has been with the children’s learning institution, she has been paramount in shaping the early childhood education landscape through her dramatically different ways. Along the way, she has helped many parents make the most out of their early years journey by helping them understand their child’s learning development. She is reachable at shoby@juliagabriel.com.my or visit www.juliagabriel.com.my

This post is sponsored by Julia Gabriel Centre. Also read this post on how to raise a bilingual child!

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