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“You Can Do It!” The Slow and Messy Journey of Raising a More Self-Sufficient Child

Our daughter is a pretty self-sufficient child for two and a half. But she’s always testing, constantly toeing the line.

A few months ago, she asked me where her Elmo doll was. I told her Elmo was in her room, and encouraged her to go get him.

Instead of moving from the couch, she asked, “You get Elmo?” I replied no, that she could do it.

She smiled and told me (not asked, this time), “You get Elmo!” Oh, heck no. I suddenly saw our future flash before my eyes, and knew this is where it begins.

My Toddler Can’t Be Completely Self-Sufficient…

Now I’m not saying that I don’t do things for my toddler. In fact, my entire day as a stay-at-home mom revolves around meeting her needs.

I feed her, bathe her, and help her use the potty. I play with her, teach her about colors, shapes, numbers, letters, and life, and answer (most of) the 2000 questions she asks every day. We attend story time, music class, and regular visits with her cousins.

When she’s sick, I’ll do almost anything she asks in an effort to comfort her. When she is sincerely unable to do things for herself, like retrieving stuffed animals from her crib or pouring herself a glass of juice, I help without hesitation. Obviously. That’s what parents do.

And sometimes I’m just feeling nice. I know what it’s like to be comfortable on the couch and then remember that you need something from your bedroom. Sure, I’ll get it this time. But not every time.

…But I’m Affecting Her Attitude Toward Self-Sufficiency

The problem is that the tendency to automatically do things for her sometimes bleeds into the things she can, and should, do for herself. Have you ever heard your child voice a need, and then stand up to meet it before they even ask you for help? I have. My Type A personality goes on autopilot, checking things off my to-do list before I ever stop to consider whether it’s a legitimate need.

Does my daughter need me to retrieve Elmo so she doesn’t miss 30 seconds of Trolls? Does she need me to follow her “bite?” prompts to feed her another spoonful of oatmeal? No and no.

I attribute a large part of my helping reflex to my inner neat freak. My home environment has a huge impact on my mood because, well, I don’t leave my home for longer than an hour or two most days. I’m constantly taking little breaks throughout the day to pick up small messes before they become big messes, because it makes me feel more calm, positive, and motivated.

That also means I tend to put away toys when my daughter seems to have finished playing with them, and would prefer to feed her spaghetti and other messy meals myself rather than clean up the self-feeding aftermath. This is especially true after I’ve just finished cleaning the house. Just ask my husband, who’s afraid to cook anything after I’ve cleaned the kitchen.

The problem is that every time I do something that I know my toddler can do herself, and that she knows she can do herself, I’m creating an expectation for the next time. And more than that, I’m help to foster an attitude in my toddler that her mommy and others exist to do everything for her.

A Self-Sufficient Child Has Messy Wings

Hodding Carter once said, “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.” It’s our job as parents to not only care for our children in love, but to also teach them to function on their own, in love.

It may seem extreme, since my daughter is only two and a half. But I believe this is where it begins, in the toddler years. And the only way to instill the independence and confidence that are her wings, is to allow her to practice (and maybe get a little messy) in the safety and comfort of her own home.

It’s usually easier to just do it ourselves than to let our toddlers make the attempt. Oh, I know! My daughter is painfully slow at putting on and taking off her (velcro) shoes. And nine times out of ten, they’re on the wrong feet. You would think that it’s a 50/50 shot, but she somehow beats the odds.

And watching her turn her spoon upside-down, lose her glob of oatmeal back into the bowl, and then start all over…117 times? It’s maddening. For both of us.

But I’ve decided that I would rather navigate the madness now, than to do everything for everyone now (which is exhausting, by the way), and still have to face the frustration of developing a self-sufficient child down the road.

And the fact is that she actually loves doing things for herself. I can see the pride in her eyes when she gets her own snacks from the pantry, throws away her trash, or cleans up small messes. “Mama! I did it! Watch me!”

She wants to be a self-sufficient child. Every small win gives her the boost in confidence that she needs to attempt even bigger feats on her own.

A Self-Sufficient Child Will Become a Self-Sufficient Adult

Yes, the next few years are going to be slow and messy. My child will more often than not be a very unhelpful helper. But when my daughter starts preschool in the fall, she won’t have to panic because she doesn’t know how to use the potty or open a juice box by herself.

And when she graduates from high school, she won’t be a stranger to running her own errands, knowing how much to tip at restaurants, or finding her way around a new city. (Not that I panicked about those things as a young adult…ahem.)

And when my self-sufficient child has her first baby, of course she’ll panic. (Why did the hospital let me bring such a tiny human being home with me?! What were they thinking?!?!) But my prayer is that she’ll have stored away enough new and different experiences, and celebrated enough small and big wins, to have the confidence to believe in herself, even if just a little bit.

Wrap It Up

So no, I don’t expect my 2-year-old to cook a meal or put herself to bed. But I’m careful to allow her to do what she can, even when it’s slow and messy.

It’s not just creating an expectation for her future behavior, it’s building her confidence one tiny win at a time. It’s telling her that her mother believes in her, that she can find Elmo, that she can find her classes on a new campus, that she can try something new.

But not yet. Because first we have to master velcro shoes.

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