We’ve all seen it. The excited announcement that your 3-year-old will “Do it myself”….followed by a temper tantrum caused by frustration of not being able to.
I don’t know that instilling independence now will keep you from getting a drink or making sandwiches for your 15-year-old (my mom’s sandwiches are still the best in the world…and I’m pushing 40), but assisting your child in reaching independence in daily tasks can save you a few minutes a day right now. And, it will no doubt get you a happier child, as they learn to master some of the activities in their day.
Here are some products and strategies to help your child effectively gain independence. Some of these can be purchased, and some of them are going to have to come from within yourself, but all are available if you just look.
Above all else: Patience
I originally placed this section at the end of this post, but moved it up for a simple reason — doing any of the other things without this one practice just won’t work. It is the MOST IMPORTANT.
Facilitating independence in your child requires a heavy dose of tongue-biting, resisting to interrupt, and hand clasping to keep from finishing a task yourself. You could do the job in half the time – or shoot, a tenth of the time – but the goal is not the completion of the task, it’s the process to get there. Without lots of practice, your child won’t ever master the task.
This is, by far, the hardest part. You can buy lots of things, organize shelves, lay things out in easy reach, but without the patience from you (and lots of encouragement!) your child will get frustrated quickly and give up. This is what I struggle with personally the most. I’d like to say that I get us all up 15 minutes earlier every morning so we get out the door on time AND Jack also gets to get his own shoes and put them on each day. But, I don’t. I aspire to, though!! 🙂 And maybe someday I’ll get there every time. But for now, I sit back and watch the kids try skills for themselves instead of doing it for them. . . . most of the time.
There are two key factors to successfully designing your home for toddler independence.
First, Organize. Set aside a place for everything and then keep everything in its place. This helps your children (and you!) know where things are and attempt to put things back where they belong. Just think of how annoyed you get when your husband puts the checkbook back in the wrong place! ( . . . or is that just me?!?) The same goes for your child, who likes to know that their things are where they are expecting them to be. A sense of order is helpful for your child to feel a better sense of control in their environment. Now, I don’t promise doing this will solve all the problems with game pieces getting mixed up, and play sets to get mismatched, but I do believe it relieves some of the daily confusion.
Second, Get Down on Their Level. Literally. I’m 6’1″, so my perspective on our home is quite different than my 3′ tall 3-yr-old. Get on your knees, crawl around, view your home from your child’s perspective and see how you can make it easier for them to control the things you are willing to let them control. Then, find storage solutions and products that help you implement.
For instance, in my house, we have:
- A cabinet below the counter filled with plates, bowls, cups, and silverware so Jack can get his own place setting. Luke now has figured out that if he’s thirsty, he comes over to the cupboard to get a cup out and that tells us he wants a drink.
- A shelf in the pantry with appropriate snacks in small baskets, so at snack time, Jack can pick his own snack. The shelf above has items that he can choose for breakfast, as well.
- Easy-reach bins for toy storage in the living room, to facilitate toy selection AND clean up since everything is within reach. There are many styles available; we use this one from Target, $45.
- A shoe basket in the front hall (with “seasonally appropriate” shoes in it), so Jack can choose his own shoes. He knows that he has to wear certain ones for school, but other than that, it’s his pick. Now even Luke, at 14 months, goes to the basket to get his shoes when he wants to go outside (and if we don’t get that hint, standing at the backdoor crying usually clues us in).
- An easy-view bookcase in the living room so even if Jack or Luke can’t reach the book they want, they can see it and point to it (though we try to keep the favorites down low). We found ours at a Sears company, Room for Kids, which is now defunct so I can’t recommend the product to you. (I’ve searched everything online and can’t find it at an alternate seller, either, darn it!). Here is one from Guidecraft that is not wall-mounted (like ours), but would be a good alternative. The best online price is $135 at All Children’s Furniture. One way to make a standard bookcase more child friendly is to designate shelves for specific types or categories of books and then label those with pictures.
- We don’t have these yet, but now that I’ve found them in my research, we’ll be getting light switch extenders. These were invented by a mom and dad who literally got tired of a) telling their kids to stop climbing on furniture to turn on lights and b) having to get up and down hundreds of times (it seemed) a day to turn lights on/off for their kids. The cutest ones I saw are from Just Out of Reach (the company that arose out of this parent invention), which cost $16.95/pack of 2, and have many different “pull” styles.
- Hooks hung low enough for the kids to reach to hang their jackets, etc. We don’t hang any clothes in the closet for the boys (they’re boys! Wrinkles are OK…and inevitable!), but if we did, we’d do so on a double hung closet rod so they could reach the clothes.
Tools to Encourage Helping at Home:
- The Learning Tower. If you take away nothing else from this blog post (after noting the importance of patience), please take away this: The Learning Tower is the single-most powerful tool to increase your child’s independence – and therefore, happiness – that you can have in your home. Hands down. It looks funny, it’s bulky, it’s expensive, but if I broke down the amount of joy and usage we’ve gotten from this purchase, it would be less expensive than anything in our toy box.
So what is it? It’s basically a heavy-duty platform, with protective sides, that allows your child to stand counter-height in the kitchen. This allows them to “help” you prepare meals, get a better perspective on the goings on in the house, feel tall and “big”, and basically be in the center of things at eye-level vs. by grabbing onto your pants leg – or worse – needing to be held all the time.
You now have two good options to buy. You can get the real-deal “The Learning Tower” (pictured above) at a variety of locations, all of which have the same price. We bought ours from Heirloom Wooden Toys, $179.95. You can buy a new, lighter weight folding version called the “Kitchen Helper” from Kids Learning Depot for $124.88.
- Step stools everywhere. The ones we use are from Ikea, $3.49 each. Sturdy enough for the boys to use, cheap enough to buy enough to have in more places than we thought we’d need. They have a taller version that works better for us in some areas at a slightly higher price, as well.
- Low tables/chairs in kitchen and common family areas. Again, thank heaven for Ikea. We have two sets of tables/chairs from them for our kitchen and our game room, both of which have gotten heavy use and are still going strong. They have plain wooden ones, plus fun, brightly colored heavy-duty plastic ones like this one (Mamut, $39.99; matching chairs are $14.99 each).
- Child-size utensils and tools. We have cookware, bakeware, and other fun kitchen tools purchased from, yet again, Ikea, that Jack uses to “help” me cook on the rare occasions that I do something more than warm up and assemble dinner. He has become an expert egg-beater using the whisk in this Ikea cookware set ($9.99). I love their bakeware set ($6.99), as well, mostly because it comes with a cute little rolling pin that he can use to roll playdough (since I, not surprisingly, don’t bake anything that requires a rolling pin in prep!)
Additionally, we’ve searched far and wide for child-sized brooms, mops, gardening tools to equip him with anything that gives him the chance to help us, finding them at places ranging from Target to Home Depot. His most recent favorite activity has been to get a spray bottle of water (he thinks it’s cleaner) and spray it on the floor and wipe it up with a rag, cleaning the floor. With 4 pets, 2 kids, and numerous adults tramping through the house on any given day, this has been a favorite activity of mine, as well, because any attention to our crunchy floors is welcome.
One of the first areas you should “outfit” your child with are clothes that allow them to dress themselves. You would think easy on/off clothes would be easily found in all clothing outlets targeting kids – but surprisingly, this is not the case, unless you want your child to constantly look like they are hitting the gym (or sandbox). Here are a few essentials to put in your kids wardrobe that will make dressing themselves easier.
- Pants/Shorts: I admit, I thought adjustable waistbands were the best things going for my tall and skinny son….until I got into potty-training. At two-years old, he wasn’t ready to deal with zippers or snaps (he’s still not, at age 3). So, we’ve gone to elastic-waist, pull on bottoms entirely. This has made our shopping more difficult. Each season, the various children’s apparel stores may have 1 or 2 selections of elastic waisted bottoms in a twill or cotton, not nearly the selection they provide in more complicated (in terms of fastening) styles. A sure staple in our closet has become Wes & Willy’s Twill Pants, found at CWDKids. These pants are a bit pricier than I like to pay for kids bottoms ($25 pants/$17 shorts), but I’ve decided they are worth it. The elastic is stretchy but not too loose, they have very generous length (great for my son who is extremely tall for his age), and the twill is very soft and comfortable. (Historically, Target has carried some adequate elastic-waist pants in their Circo brand for $5!!; but I just checked and they don’t have them online at this time.)
- Crocs: At one point, I wondered why I saw all the kids on the playground running around in Crocs, which seem like a hard shoe to run in. This is another example of the “just wait, the answer will be revealed to you” world of parenting, as it soon was with our first pair. They quickly became Jack’s favorite, not just for the comfort, but for his independence of getting them on/off. And, as an added bonus during potty training, they wash easily! The basic model (the “Cayman”) is $31 online, and they’ve added many more elaborate styles for kid (or parent) fashionistas for higher prices, if you so desire.
- Choices: A key element of independence is allowing your kids to make choices (within boundaries that you specify). Unlimited options is overwhelming to kids this age, but you may want to lay out two different outfits, for instance, and let your child choose between them.
I sincerely hope that these tips and ideas have helped you in some way, and that you can move your child along the path toward “doing it himself” successfully.