We talked about how important it is for a child to gain independence in the early years of life. The natural question next is – how do we do this? Here I break down each point with practical examples of things you start to do today to help your infant or toddler become a confident individual:


1. Trust the child with appropriate responsibilities

Infants: The sticky word here for a lot of people is “appropriate” – after all, what is appropriate for an infant? You’re not wrong here in that developmentally there’s still a lot of growing to do before babies can truly be participating in responsibilities in a world built for adults. But one way to introduce trust and independence in your baby is through food. 

Whether you are still on milk/formula, or starting solid food, you can give a normally developing baby the responsibility to communicate their hunger and fullness. This looks like offering a balanced choice of food at a set time (parent’s responsibility) and allowing the baby to eat as much or as little of each food as they’d like (baby’s responsibility). If you’re not familiar with Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility, I highly recommend it! This approach to eating not only promotes independence, but has the added benefit of your child starting to understand their physiological side at an early age and promotes healthy eating habits to last a lifetime. Continue this into toddlerhood to stop the power struggles around food for good. 

Toddlers: Your toddler will start to love doing anything you do, so why not share in household responsibilities! Start on daily tasks like setting up the table and asking your toddler to carry the cutlery, napkins, even plates and cups. After they finish their meal, get them to help you bring the dishes back or wash up.

If your toddler is like mine, he loves digging into the laundry basket. Involve them in washing the next load and sorting the clean ones. When running errands, find something your child can be involved in like holding onto the grocery list, putting items into the cart, or pushing along the bin.


2. Show confidence in the child’s capabilities

Infants: Best thing you can do to show this is WAIT. Babies are naturally born problem solvers, a skill that parents well-intentionally practice OUT for her baby because we jump in to help them with so much. WAIT and OBSERVE. Be curious what your baby will do next! Say your baby has rolled onto his tummy and now is looking around. After a bit, he tries to roll back onto his back and can’t. He might start to fuss and grunt and this is when many parents will jump in to roll the baby back on his back. He just started trying though! He loses an opportunity to learn and practice this gross motor skill that will help him feel independent and confident. Instead, you can WAIT and you can sport cast “Oh you’re wanting to roll back. It looks like you’re trying. I’ll stay close by and let you give it a go.” Even when you go in to help, offer the MINIMAL ACTION like moving an arm to a better position to push, or bend a leg up for leverage.

ToddlersMuch like infants, the best thing we can do is WAIT & OBSERVE. Sportcast what is going on, “Oh, you’d like help with the marker? Hmm is it stuck? What can we do?” Instead of jumping in to complete the task, again do the MINIMAL ACTION and encourage them to try again. With the marker, verbally explaining how it might help to twist the lid first might make it easier, then WAIT and see. If there’s still a need for help, offer to use one hand and pull with them. You can get it loose to a certain point and then ask them to pull the rest off. This shows your child that you believe they are capable of solving problems and promote critical thinking to achieve ones goal!


3. Give opportunities and guidance for the child to make their own choices

InfantsOne of the first things you can do to support choices in the youngest children is by making toys available for their choosing. This can look like putting our toys on the floor and letting your baby reach and crawl to the ones they want to play with. Often parents may find a toy that seems interesting to babies and try to engage their child in playing with the toy, only to find that the baby is more interested in the box it came in! Follow your child’s lead and allow them to play as they choose. Make sure to continue this into toddlerhood too. More on infant play and its role in independence coming up soon!

ToddlersAs your baby enter into toddlerhood, they start to realize their separation from you and also their own individuality. Which means that they will often exercise their right to individual thoughts and opinions regularly. That’s why many people the time of toddlerhood names like terrible-twos, and threes, and fours… One of the first thing you can do to limit power struggles is to promote independence by giving choices. Give two choices you’re comfortable with and let them choose their best option. “Would you like to put on the shoes yourself, or would you like me to help?” “Would you like to leave the park now or in 5 minutes?” “Would you like to walk to the door or skip over?”

Allow them to make choices in clothing. My son loves wearing mismatched socks, and why wouldn’t you want to wear different prints and colours over always the same thing? If it’s not a health and safety issue, allow them to wear what they pick out. It’s the loudest way we show our individualism every day, through our clothing.


4. Trust the child to work through natural and/or logical consequences

InfantsAs per above, there are many ways we can help our child understand natural and logical consequences through play. And in fact, this is so prominent and important in their daily lives as infants! He pushes a ball and it rolls away; it is now out of reach. The baby begins to learn inertia. Then if you always roll the ball back, the lesson they learn is you will roll the ball back – which isn’t terrible right? However, you can see that they have missed some other learning opportunities – problem solving, moving ones body to achieve a goal, planning and execution, etc. There are many important lessons missed in favour of only one, “depend on others to help”. What does this say about ones independence and capabilities? Next time your child rolls a ball away, WAIT, OBSERVE, and SPORTCAST to give them an opportunity to work through consequences of their actions through play.

ToddlersAs is typical with anything we choose in life, there will be consequences – in our favour or not. It’s important that we try not to interfere with consequences by preventing negative outcomes. (disclaimer: DO remove health and safety hazards! But don’t attempt to eliminate all risk taking. More on the benefits of risky play to come!) so learning can come organically. This supports children’s learning at a young age to be responsible for ones actions. If your child goes outside in the cold without wearing a jacket, allow your child to understand that if they do so, they will feel cold. This will encourage them next time to remember to wear a jacket. If your child throws food on the ground, the natural consequence is that there is now less food for his meal and the logical consequence is that they will need to help clean up.  

A note on discipline vs. natural and logical consequences: Often people think respectful parenting is permissive parenting, but it’s very different. When we allow for natural or logical consequence, we build a solid foundation of discipline in a real-world setting. Children learns that there is a cause and effect that’s applied over similar situations and they have control of the outcomes. They also learn that it isn’t the parent’s power over them that causes the consequences but the act itself – there’s no judgement on the child, and there’s a sense of respect and teamwork as a family unit. If you use traditional punishment techniques, the punishment might not fit the action. For example, enforcing a rule to wear a jacket and then taking away a favoured toy if they don’t, your toddler only learns that adults and those in authority have the power to take away things I like. There’s also a judgement on the child, “You did this, so I’m doing something to you to make it fair.” Which brings us to…

5. Give love and respect freely, no matter if the child succeeds or falters

InfantsAs a newborn, every day is filled with failures – they get into a sitting position, but tumbles over; they reach for a toy but it rolls away; they reach for someone on the table but knocks over another object. It’s natural and easy for the parent to jump in to correct, to find fault, to cast blame on the baby. Often it stems from concern that the baby will be hurt in some way. Yet when we react in this way, the baby learns that failures are to be prevented. Instead, these aren’t failures but a natural step in learning about the world. It’s only a failure in the eyes of the adult, so it’s our job to free our children from thinking the same way. Choose love and respect by simply sportcasting, “You wanted to sit up, and you fell over”, “You wanted the toy and the other thing fell when you tried to reach for it”. This shows your infant that challenges that come up while gaining confidence and independence will be met with support instead of judgement and negativity from you. 

ToddlersIn the example above, your toddler chooses not to wear a jacket out and it’s cold. They might ask you for a jacket shortly after, and it’s important that you choose to respect your child’s initial choice and his change of heart. After all, we all make choices we might want to reverse. Imagine if each time we do, we’re met with “Well if you had only listened to me in the first place…”. Encourage this natural consequence learning and bring along a jacket to offer without strings when asked or when you think they might like to choose again. Simply, “Ok, here you go” or “Would you like to have your jacket?” shows unconditional love and respect. Comments that might induce shameful feelings in the child will only alienate them from coming to you in the future when they want to change their mind. They might even be encouraged to stick to their original plan because they don’t feel safe and don’t want to feel a judgement made on them. Choose love and respect to give your child a chance feel confident in their independent choices, first or second or million times over.

Now off you go!

Pick one thing today to start doing at home with your infant or toddler and add another tomorrow or the next week. And take a page from our children’s book – don’t judge yourself if your falter, after all, “a fall is just a lost of balance” – Magda Gerber. Dust off and try again. Comment below and let me know how it went!