Once your baby has grown to a toddler, you might be surprised by the amount of independence they exude! But how do you allow them to explore and grow that attribute, while keeping them safe, and within boundaries? This guest post by Caitlin Kennedy, has some insight on allowing your toddler to explore their newfound freedom (but keep them within your safe guidelines)…
While this may seem like an impossible task, there are things you can do to make your life easier, and your toddler’s more enjoyable as well!
Now You Have An Independent Toddler…
Toddlers are imaginative, affectionate, exuberant, often fearless, passionate and stubborn people. Right when you think you have them figured out, they go ahead and surprise you.
“I used to like peas, Mommy, but now I think they would look much better rolling around like tiny marbles on the floor.”
“I know I used to sleep through the night in my beautiful, expensive crib, but now I think I’d rather interrupt your sleep and refuse to leave your side. Ok with you?”
While some days it may seem that you can’t catch a break and others a big hug from your toddler makes you feel like you’re on top of the world, the truth is that toddlers lack the brain capacity to think before they act. Not to mention that during the toddler years, their language is growing exponentially, which is difficult for them to keep up with and understand. Navigating these tumultuous, yet remarkable, years can be frustrating at times, especially if your child is particularly strong-willed. As a teacher, literacy specialist, and mommy to two, there are a few things I have learned through the years that may make these tiresome toddler years much more enjoyable for you and yours.
Here are some ways to embrace independence while setting boundaries through the toddler years:
- Present new opportunities while setting expectations.
Toddlers all have different personalities. My son, for example, is very confident and curious, and is not clingy at all when we venture out and try new playgroups and story times. He is one of the children that you see in the front of the group, clapping and singing, looking back at me once and a while to make sure I am there. While giving your toddler space, but making sure you are their security blanket, it enables them to explore the world on their own time. They need to know that you are giving them the ok to safely explore, but are always there if you need them.
At the same time, set clear expectations of what you need to get from them. For example, if you are in a wide open space, your toddler needs to know that they need to either stay close to you, or come back to you to let you know when they are walking away, etc. Whatever your expectation is for the time and place, let the child know in advance and give constant reminders so that they are not blindsided and can enjoy their exploration.
- Be Consistent.
This is probably my favorite tool for navigating my strong-willed toddler’s world. I understand that sometimes our children are taken care of by various people and family members. And I value their opinions and understand that they are not always my own. Flexibility is a great skill to show toddlers as well!
On the other hand, when you are the sole caretaker and with your child for the majority of the day, you need to be consistent. There is nothing more frustrating to me than when we are out and about and a parent says to their toddler, “Do that one more time and we are leaving.” Then the toddler proceeds to do it again, and guess what? The adult does not stick to their consequence and they don’t leave. Talk about mixed messages! This teaches the toddler that their parent doesn’t always tell the truth so they don’t always need to listen.
Toddlers are smarter than we think. In order to celebrate their independence while setting boundaries, choose logical consequences (time-out is not always the most logical option) based on the toddler’s behavior. For example, my son is beginning to know that if he chooses to dump all of his crayons out, he must help me clean them up. Being consistent with a child of any ages encourages strong moral reasoning and promotes independence.
- Empathize and talk it out.
In their own little egocentric world, toddlers lack the self-awareness to know when a tantrum is coming on or why something is upsetting them so much. As they get older, encourage your child to use their words to talk out the situation. Empathize with them and let them know that you understand they are upset. Encourage them to count to 3 or take a breath. Remove them from a hostile situation if need be, in a calm and loving way. Help them come up with a solution, and although it may seem silly at times, giving a hug can go a long way as well.
Also, you can foster and nurture their independence by letting them know that you are proud of them for something they accomplished. Using positive reinforcement and not always focusing on what they did wrong can be enlightening and can curb unwanted behaviors in the long run. For example, say, “That was very nice that you let that little girl have the ball. Thank you for sharing.” I think sometimes we go overboard in rewarding children with physical things, like toys or more screen time etc. Although there is a time and place for rewards, sometimes toddlers just need to know that you care by hearing it from you.
- Embrace and encourage play!
Role-playing is a great way to help toddlers establish their independence in a safe and fun way, and also creates a bridge to being able to verbalize what they are feeling in time. Nourish their creativity and present real-life situations to them. Giving toddlers access to non-electronic toys such as a play kitchen, dress-up clothes, a toolbox, and blocks encourages them to use their brain and think for themselves. Household objects such as spoons, boxes, and paper are also easy and non-expensive ways for toddlers to explore and use their creativity.
Playing with your toddler as well as letting them play independently builds a toddler’s confidence and allows them to become more independent. If your toddler is having a difficult time interacting with other children, role-play with them using dolls or stuffed animals. Instilling character education through play can be a powerful and fun activity for you and your toddler!
- Pick your battles and always have patience.
If a toddler consistently hears the word no and is used to being punished, chances are that “no” will become a meaningless word that they don’t pay attention to anymore in time. In our house, I try to keep a strong “no” ready for dangerous situations, such as when my son reaches for the stove, or starts climbing on a chair, or anytime he uses his hands to hit or throw. Otherwise, I use positive reinforcement or redirection, and I always choose my battles wisely.
Giving toddlers ample time to explore will create a comfortable environment for them to feel confident and secure. Therefore, always give yourself extra time! I learned the importance of patience with children long ago, when I was a kindergarten teacher. When I had 22 little faces staring at their coats, boots, hats and mittens before recess in the winter, I realized that they needed to learn how to put these things on themselves, and I needed to give them time and my patience while they learned. These days, my son loves to use a spoon to feed himself. Would it be easier and cleaner for me to just feed him? Of course. Would that encourage motor skills and independence that he needs to practice and implement on his own? Nope.
As parents, it is our job to provide a safe and loving environment for our toddlers to learn. Whether we are enjoying a quiet book in bed with our kids, or witnessing them stomp their feet because they can’t have a cookie in the grocery store, the above tools are necessary for navigating this rollercoaster ride of the toddler years. As a parent of a toddler, I urge you fellow mommies to have compassion for your babies, have patience and love for them, and always have one of their favorite snacks in hand ;).
Caitlin is a former elementary teacher and current stay-at-home mom to two babies, just 13 months apart, living in upstate NY. She enjoys coffee, wine, and quality time with family. After all, life is better with babies! Follow her blog at www.betterwithbabies.com and Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/betterwithbabies.