I Want To Do It Myself!
By Robin Goldstein, Ph.D.
Problem: I have a 2 1/2 year old that is so intent on doing things without help that she will tell me in that strong willed voice, "I do it! I am finding myself getting into many power struggles with her, especially when I'm in a hurry to get out of the house. Any suggestions for how to make things go smoother during this stage?
Remember when you worried that your dependent infant would never become independent? Well, here it is, the stage in which independence shows itself in a powerful way - and it's one of the most challenging stages for parent and child. What you describe is what every parent of a 2 or 3 year old experiences. As you have witnessed, the drive for this age group to do for themselves is very strong. Reasoning with your young child, "We're in a hurry..." or "We'll be late..." usually doesn't help a young child give a task she wants to complete over to her mommy or daddy.
Strategies: If you understand your child's need and desire to do things herself, and go forward encouraging her to do what she's interested in, it will help her develop confidence. Being patient with your child at this stage can be hard, especially because at times patience, distraction and preparation won't help calm a child who is intent on putting the key in the keyhole or fastening her own seat belt (even when it's raining or when you're in a hurry). Still, the more your child is allowed to try things on her own, the less she will argue when you have to take over a task. And as you see how pleased your child is with her accomplishments and how good she feels about her abilities, you will understand why it's important to let her do many things for herself, therefore allowing her independence to flourish.
DO understand that by allowing her to do tasks on her own, you show her that you believe in her capabilities. This outburst of, "I Want To Do It Myself, is a developmental stage. The more you let your child do, the less frustrated she will be. Let her take the wrapper off her candy, turn the light switch on, change the channel using the remote, be creative as she tackles jobs on her own. However, always be aware of safety issues.
DON'T jump in too soon to help just because you find it difficult to watch your child struggle with a task. If you find it too hard to stay uninvolved, occupy yourself with something else while your child works. When you take over tasks she wants to do on her own, she learns that she is not as capable as you. She also learns to mistrust her interests and skills.
DO remember that your young child doesn't understand your feelings and needs and will often focus only on her own needs unless she's distracted. Despite your best intentions, you may find yourself in an embarrassing situation, carrying away a screaming, angry child who wants to stay put until she has finished a task.
DON'T make it a habit to do for your child, that which she is wants to do and is capable of doing on her own. If you do this often, you will foster feelings of self-doubt in your child. This can evolve into a child who says, "you do it which is a sign of the child feeling as if she's not competent.
DO warn your child ahead of time if there will not be time for her to dress herself or do some other task: "We're in a hurry today, so I'm going to help you." And distract her: "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."
DO break tasks into steps and let your child try a small part of the job if a task she wants to try is too difficult or messy. If she can't yet brush her teeth, let her hold the toothbrush while you put the toothpaste on, and let her hold your hand as you brush and then let her try it on her own. Cheer for her, "You did it by yourself!"
BOTTOM LINE: The drive to become independent should not be taken lightly. Your child's self-esteem and confidence is at stake. Young children need their parents to believe in them. Consistently encouraging your child to tackle tasks she's interested in will benefit her throughout her life. If you don't honor this stage, your young child runs the risk of learning to feel inferior and insecure about her capabilities.
About The Author
Robin Goldstein, Ph.D.
Author, "The Parenting Bible: The Answers to Parents Most Common Questions, Sourcebooks, 2002
Faculty, Johns Hopkins University; University of Virginia