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I Can Do It: Preschoolers and the Drive for Autonomy

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One of the main tasks of the toddler and preschool years is developing autonomy. This can be a great inconvenience to parents, who know that, for example, getting out the door would happen much faster if three-year-old Trevor didn't insist on dressing himself when he can't do the buttons, tying his own shoes when he doesn't know how, or struggling into his jacket without help…backwards.

One of your jobs, as a parent, is to facilitate the emerging autonomy of your children. This doesn't mean suddenly abandoning your child to the mercy of his shoelaces, but it does mean supporting your child's drive to learn to do things himself.

You can survive your child's growing autonomy by:

1. Planning ahead. Supporting fledgling independence means planning for more time to get out the door, allowing for tasks to be accomplished more slowly because of the "help" of your little apprentice, and taking care of yourself so that you have patience for the process.

2. Thinking in small steps. We often aren't aware of the many baby steps that go into a simple act. Break down tasks like putting on a shirt or jacket into small steps in your mind so that you can walk your child through it.

3. Asking, "Can I show you the first step?" A child who doesn't want you to take over for him may respond to an offer of help with a small part of the task.

4. Empathizing. Think about what it is like when you are learning something new. Then multiply that feeling by one hundred. Your child is learning many, many new skills and pieces of information every day. There is often a gap between his innate desire and drive to learn and the speed at which he can do so. Be prepared for lots of repetition, and plan to be very patient with his frustration.

5. Playing games to enhance his ability to follow directions and to extend his attention span. These skills will help him succeed at his quest to become more autonomous.

As you wade through this phase where desire for independence outweighs ability, you can encourage yourself that not only will this rocky stage result in an increasingly competent youngster, but also that your job will become easier as your child learns to do more and more by himself.