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The Terrible Twos: A Struggle for Independence

Helping by Not Helping (Much)

The best way you can help your two-year-old achieve a healthy degree of independence is to stay out of his way—but at the same time, stay close enough to help when he really needs it. Here's what you can do:

  • Be patient! This is probably the most important guideline for parents of two-year-olds. Your child cannot possibly complete a "simple" task as easily as you can. But if you give your toddler the time and opportunity to learn through trial and error-with a few pointers from you—he will soon become competent and confident in a variety of skills.
  • Leave extra time for everything. If you want your child to practice independent skills, it's not fair to hurry him through them. So get ready to leave ten or fifteen minutes—okay, half an hour—before you actually have to go anywhere.
  • If time becomes short, trade off tasks. "You put your socks on and I'll get your shoes on." Or perhaps, "You do that shoe, I'll do this one." Or, "You put your coat on, I'll zip it up."
  • Empower your child. Try to come up with ways to increase your toddler's sense of competence, strength, ability, and power. You may, for instance, let your child decide where to hang his latest artwork (building his sense of pride and confidence). Or you may encourage him to move the chairs around to set up a play tent (building his sense of strength).
  • Rather than forcing, directing, or commanding your child to do what you want, gently steer him toward doing it. For instance, give your toddler some choices about what to do next. (Hint: If all the options you offer are things your child likes to do and things you want him to do, he—and you—can't lose no matter what he chooses to do first.)
  • If your child can do it, let him do it. Your toddler's various skills only will improve if he gets a chance to use them. And the more practice you give your child, the faster he will master a task. So after your child can put on his jacket, let him do it most of the time. Not only will he become more and more skilled, but you will have less and less to do yourself.
  • Intervene only if your child becomes frustrated or asks for help. Avoid the temptation to take over just because you think your toddler has been trying long enough. If he's still trying and is not tearing his hair out, then he is still confident that he can complete the task. If you lose patience and do it for him, you will undermine your two-year-old's confidence and transform everything he's done up to now into wasted effort.
  • Remember your child is only two. Although your child is much more independent than a one-year-old, he is by no means fully independent. Expect your child to go through spells of clinging and anxiety, though they may occur less often and be less pronounced than they were in the first year of toddlerhood. So give your child the attention and help that he does want. Your independent-minded toddler wouldn't ask for it if he didn't really need it.
  • Praise the effort. It's not easy for your two-year-old to do things himself. So even if he doesn't quite succeed, reward your child with praise and encouragement. If your child comes close to succeeding at the task—maybe he buttoned his coat, but missed a button—don't redo it. There's really no reason he needs to do everything perfectly when he's just learning.
  • Don't pressure your child. If you nag or harass him, he will resist doing it at all. That's another way your child can assert his independence.

More on: Preschool

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Preschooler and Toddler, Too © 1997 by Keith M. Boyd, M.D., and Kevin Osborn. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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