“I want to do it myself!” How long will this last?

Children want to try doing many things for themselves. An eighteen-month-old wants to push buttons, put a key in the keyhole, walk down the steps, and get his own vitamin. A two-year-old wants to take the wrapper off his candy and fasten his seat belt, while a three-year-old wants to work the computer and pour his own juice. Sometimes children are successful at the tasks they choose for themselves, and at other times they struggle in frustration because they lack skills and dexterity. Still, the drive to do for themselves is very strong.

Parents who respect their child’s desire to do things for himself help him develop a strong sense of autonomy. Since his self-image is partly determined by the way his parents respond to his desire for independence, he’ll feel good about himself when he’s allowed to tackle jobs on his own. On the other hand, if his parents discourage him too often, he’ll begin to doubt his own abilities.

In general, parents should let their child at least start a task he’s interested in. If he’s unsuccessful, they can offer guidance, and if he’s unable to follow their suggestions they can then offer to do the job for him. Parents often jump in too soon because they find it difficult to watch their child struggle with a task. They naturally want to help, but often he doesn’t want help. If they find it too hard to stay uninvolved, they should occupy themselves with something else while he works.

Sometimes parents will not be able to let their child do a task for himself. One family, for example, was about to go home after seeing a circus when their two-year-old insisted on tying his own shoe. As they tried to help him and hurry him along, he became angry and frustrated, and nearby families stopped to watch the struggle. The parents finally solved the problem by telling their son he could carry his shoe out and tie it himself in the car, but often such conflicts are not easily resolved.

Despite the best intentions, parents may find themselves in an embarrassing situation, carrying away a screaming, angry child who wants to stay put until he’s finished a task. Such times are difficult for parents, who feel judged by others and frustrated by their child’s actions. Yet, he doesn’t understand his parents’ feelings, and often will focus only on his own needs unless he’s distracted.

Sometimes parents don’t want him to do a job for himself because they don’t want to deal with the mess that will result, or because they’re in a hurry. But when they say, “Let me do that for you,” they may be in for arguments, struggles, or temper tantrums.

To minimize such resistance, warn your child ahead of time if there won’t be time for him to dress himself or do some other task. “We’re in a hurry today, so I’m going to help you.” Try to distract him: “Why don’t you look at this book while I put your shoes on?” “Let me tell you a story while I get your breakfast ready.”

If a task your child wants to try is too difficult or messy, break it into steps and let him try a small part of the job. If he can’t yet brush his teeth, let him hold the toothbrush while you put the toothpaste on, and let him hold your hand as you brush. He will feel pleased to participate, and in time, step by step, he’ll take over the job for himself.

Being patient with children at this stage is difficult because patience, distraction, and preparation don’t necessarily work-your child will angrily demand to do something for himself when you don’t want him to or when he is incapable of doing the job. Still, the more he is allowed to try on his own, the less likely he is to argue when you have to take over a task. And as you see how pleased he is with his accomplishments and how good he feels about his abilities, you will understand why it is important to let him do many things for himself.

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