Your first impression of your child might have been formed when you saw them in a sonogram or felt their tiny kicks or when you held them for the first time at the beginning of their maiden voyage out into this crazy world. And it’s pretty likely you thought, “this little creature is more or less totally helpless.” Could you possibly ever imagine them driving a car? Voting in a national election? Toasting a bagel?
As they grow, though, children like to gain their independence (you did, right?). And while it may feel strange – and even a little sad – to grasp that they don’t need us as much for some tasks, there are innumerable upsides to not having to change diapers anymore.
So how do we help young children gain independence around self-care routines?
The first step is to only ask them to do things they are realistically capable of doing. This may seem obvious and there’s variation, based on the particular child, but there are benchmarks that you can use as guideposts. Learn about the benchmarks so that you don’t frustrate yourself and your child by asking a ten-month-old to wash their own hands or a three-year-old to totally dress themselves. Absolutely nobody wants or needs that world of hurt.
Once you’re confident that the task is one your child is likely capable of accomplishing, break it into its tiniest components when teaching it. So you’d say… pick up the toothpaste and twist off the cap; grab your toothbrush and squeeze a little toothpaste onto it. And so forth and so on.
The key is to use clear steps, simple to understand and positive – better to say “just use a little toothpaste” rather than “do NOT empty the entire tube of toothpaste onto your toothbrush unless you want a piece of me!” You can even have fun with the child by taking pictures of each step of the task and then putting them up on the wall where the child usually does the task.
Likewise, modeling – or demonstrating the steps of the task yourself – is a great tool for teaching and reinforcing self-care routines. And giving the child some choice in the matter – mint toothpaste or bubblegum? – almost always increases kids’ motivation.
Finally remember that at first, it’s going to take the child a lot longer to brush their teeth or get dressed on their own or even toast their own bagel than it used to take when you did it for them. That’s ok. Be encouraging and positive. Celebrate each little victory. And before you know it, your child will be bursting with pride because they’re learning to take care of themselves.