It's hard to watch your baby grow up. It seems one day he relies on you for every basic need, then he's eating solid food and taking his first steps. Soon, your toddler is running around, throwing his dinner on the floor and letting you know, in no uncertain terms, what he needs and wants.
As your baby becomes a toddler, finding a balance between his growing independence and your sanity can be a challenge.
Take heart. This is normal. At around 18 months, your toddler begins to learn that he is separate from his parents and that he can make choices. This newfound independence is both emotional and physical. When he says "no," your toddler is asserting his agency and testing out a powerful new word. When he wants to walk instead of being carried, he's saying he needs to stretch and strengthen his legs.
The work and the effort belong to the child, but parents are instrumental in the development of healthy habits, self-confidence and setting the tone for companionship within the family.
Here's how you can work together:
1. Set up the house so that your kid can do things for himself
Ensure that your toddler can initiate his own play without your assistance. His play space should be free from safety hazards and set up so he can access his toys and play uninterrupted for as long as he likes.
In a Montessori classroom, for example, activities are organized neatly on a shelf, each in its own basket or tray. Having fewer activities available helps the child focus and makes it easier for him to tidy up when he is finished playing. At home, simplify your child's play area by making about eight activities or toys available at a time, storing the rest to rotate in as you see your child needs a change or new challenge.
Place a low chair or stool in the entryway so your child can sit down to put on his own shoes, or mount a low hook in the bathroom where he can hang up his own towel. You will need to demonstrate how to use these new tools, but soon you will see your child take over the responsibility.
2. Let them roam
You have made your home safe and accessible to your child, now it's time to set him free in the space and sit back to watch.
When you're observing someone or something, you're not interrupting or judging. You should be available if the child needs you, but the goal is to let him explore on his own. If you notice that he's struggling and your first instinct is to step in to help, sit on your hands. Children need time — lots of time — to figure things out.
In fact, struggling to finish a puzzle today in the safety of his own home with his loved one close by will give him confidence to persevere through difficulty later in life. By waiting and watching, you are quietly giving him the message that you believe he can do it. Soon, he will begin to believe that himself.
If, on the other hand, you notice that his struggle is turning into frustration, this may be a moment to come closer so he knows you're available. As a general rule, ask before intervening and only help as much as absolutely necessary by showing him perhaps how to rotate a piece to fit it into the puzzle. Then step back and see what happens.
3. It's about the process, not the product
Remember that children of this age are focused on the process of playing or washing vegetables or cleaning up a spill, not on the end result. It's the effort itself that's teaching them about their environment while strengthening their muscles and coordination.
Giving your child the time to practice what interests him is the best way to show that you trust his ability to decide for himself.
Try making some cloths available to your child for cleaning up his own spills. You may want to do this work together at first to ensure the spot is actually clean, but soon the child will be able to wipe up on his own.
4. Offer feedback instead of praise
This can be a hard one. You love your child. You think it's amazing that he can climb the stairs by himself or scribble with a crayon. After all, you've been there every step of the way and you know best how far he has come.
However, he's still learning to take pride in his own work. If he's used to hearing "good boy!" every time he takes a bite of dinner, he will start looking for that outside motivation.
Instead, try offering feedback, such as "that was a big bite!" or "you really like those carrots today." Or, ideally, say nothing and allow the child to lead the conversation or explore his food in peace.
5. Encourage a spirit of cooperation
Your toddler wants to help. In fact, the tasks that adults find boring or monotonous are precisely the ones he finds so fascinating. He's not yet ready to complete chores on his own but there is plenty he can do alongside you.
When preparing dinner, set your young toddler up at a low table. Give him a large bowl with a little bit of water and slowly show him how to wash the vegetables for dinner. Later, you can show him how to peel and slice bananas or other soft items with a butter knife.
When baking, he can stir, pour in pre-measured ingredients and eventually crack eggs. Encourage him to get his own snack by reserving a low shelf in your refrigerator for him. Place a small jug of water, some containers of pre-sliced fruit and veggies or some cubes of cheese there.
Empty out a low cupboard in the kitchen where your toddler can access her own dishes, cups and utensils. She will be proud to prepare her own snack and set the table. When you're folding laundry, invite your toddler to match socks or fold wash cloths. Know that it will be messier and slower, but you are encouraging your toddler's active participation in the life of the family.
Starting now will set the tone for years to come. After all, it's easier to get your tween to unload the dishwasher if the expectation of help has been there since she was a toddler.
There are countless ways to tweak each room in your home to support your toddler's developing independence. Visit Aid To Life for more concrete tips. And always remember the cry of the young child, which according to Italian physician and educator Dr. Maria Montessori is "Help me to do it by myself!"
In your heart, he will always be your baby but, with some guidance and a lot of space, he will grow into a self-sufficient, confident and helpful adult.
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