Rachel Smith knows the quickest way to get into an argument with her son, Hayden, 4, is to stir his chocolate milk. But with four children—including Hayden and his twin—the Winnipeg mom is no stranger to grappling with a preschooler’s new-found independence.
“I found that age three was the most challenging with all my kids,” she says. “If I forgot to let them do something for themselves, they would get angry.” One year later, Hayden still fights for his independence. Like the stirred milk thing.
“If I do it for him, he’ll tell me I wrecked it and to throw it out,” says Smith. When a tantrum ensues, Smith puts the chocolate milk in the fridge and walks away. “Usually if I ignore him, he will ask for it in five minutes or so. Then he has to apologize for yelling and can have his milk.”
The drive to do things for themselves is a combination of cognitive development and watching what others can do, such as friends at daycare and older siblings and parents at home.
“It’s in their instincts to see someone doing something and want to do it, too,” says Christopher Gibbins, a Vancouver-based registered psychologist who works regularly with preschool-aged kids. “That’s how we’re wired as human beings. We learn by observation and by emulating what we see.”
If your child is happy to let others do things for her, Gibbins says that’s okay, too—to a point. “All young children have times when they are distracted or unmotivated and don’t want to try something difficult, which is normal. However, if a child rarely or never seems interested in copying adults or in trying things for herself, that may be a concern.”
Pushing buttons—and boundaries—is another part of the independence phase, as Vancouver-based mom Jodi McNell can attest. She is often met with resistance from her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Aengus, when she’s trying to get things done. “I try not to get too frustrated because I do want to support him and I want him to feel like there are certain areas of his life in which he does have some control,” says McNell.
This type of pushback is common, says Gibbins. And as a child’s desire to do more for herself grows, so does her need to control her environment. “Kids at this age don’t want someone—including mom and dad—interfering in ways they don’t like with their personal space, body or activities,” he says. “We all want to make decisions that affect us, and we all want to control our surroundings at a level that makes us comfortable.”
Terry Carson, a parenting coach in Toronto, recommends setting your child up for success. One way to do this is to encourage her to problem solve. “So, for instance, instead of tying your child’s shoes for her, show her how to do it and let her at it,” she says. Carson suggests offering lots of opportunities to try things on her own so she can begin to feel pride in solving problems.
Asking open-ended questions is another way to foster independent thinking, says Carson. “If your child is having trouble gluing something, instead of grabbing the bottle and doing it, ask her ‘What if we added more glue?’ Get her thinking about the end result.”
Sometimes desire comes before ability, and that can prove frustrating for kids. “If the task is too much for the child, reduce it into smaller pieces so she can achieve some level of success,” suggests Carson. “This way, she’ll feel a sense of achievement.”
Beyond understanding that children’s behaviours are linked to their level of development, Carson adds that parents need to be patient with them as they learn and mature. “They will eventually ‘get it,’ but growth takes time.”
Gibbins couldn’t agree more, adding that fostering independence today promotes future growth and learning. “Letting kids do things for themselves teaches them that if they try something challenging, they can improve and learn,” he says. “They learn that sometimes they can solve their own problems and that just because they couldn’t do something yesterday doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do it tomorrow.”
When Rachel Naud’s son, Tristan, was between the ages of three and five, he was happy to have everything done for him. He’s now seven and not much has changed.