Isn't it funny the way toddlers sometimes insist on doing things themselves. My daughter is two now, but from the first moment she could speak, it seemed like "I do it MYSELF!" was a staple of her vocabulary.
I try to view her independence as a good thing. Since I'm parenting three children, it is wonderful that she wants to put on her own shoes, feed herself, or dress herself. I think it is an important part of raising a child to give them the room to try things themselves -- even if it seems like they've chosen a task far beyond their abilities. Quite often, like this morning when my daughter buckled her own sandals, I've been surprised at the results!
But in the process of trying a new task herself, my daughter will sometimes get really frustrated. She will drive at a solution that eludes her. Finally, she will let out a gutteral scream I know comes from the pit of her soul.
When she's at the end of her rope, though, I give her time to feel her own frustration. I like to watch what comes after that point, because it is almost always a leap in development for her. Either she will regroup and try a new method or she will power through her frustration and get the thing right -- like when she finally learned how to ride her tricycle and hollered until she got the rhythm of one pedal then the other.
We have photos of my oldest son trying like crazy to crawl forward. All he could manage was to scoot himself backward. In the photos, his face got redder and redder until finally, he reached for the toy in front of him that was just out of reach -- and got it! What a smile of victory he had on his face! That smile would not have been possible if we had not been willing to step back and let him find his own way.
There are many times when my children are frustrated and they will stop in a quiet moment, look over and ask for help. I try to be present and accessible when they are trying to figure out something new. Sometimes, I will get them started or give them a hint or remind them of the steps they will need to take to accomplish their goal. My middle son needs encouragement if he can't get his seatbelt on right away. "I can't do it!" he will cry in despair. "You can do it. And we will wait as long as it takes for you to do it," I reply. Removing the time pressure usually does the trick for him. He gets it buckled. At the point that my children reach out for help, I think it is important to be there -- not to swoop in and do it for them, but to teach them to solve the problem themselves.
I know many parents never think NOT to help their child. Moms are compulsive, professional helpers, aren't we? But I have made the decision to start early, encouraging my children to make their own choices and to feel the consequences of those choices. I have started with the little tasks my children ask to do on their own.
When mothers do everything for their children, they are silently saying "I think you are helpless. You cannot do this for yourself." Even if they never say the words, parents who do every little thing for their child are creating a child who will be dependent on them. It can be terribly comforting for a parent to be needed so much. But, isn't the goal of parenting to lovingly raise children who can think and do and decide what is best for themselves?
If a parent never gives their child the chance to be frustrated and possibly fail, they are depriving that child of valuable experience in problem-solving and decision-making. I remember having to make the first hard decisions of my adulthood and feeling paralyzed. I talked to my father about it. "Well, princess," he said supportively, "you need to sit down and figure things out for yourself. I will help you if you need me, but these are your decisions to make."
I know now that those are the best words he could have said to me. Did I have to flounder? Yes. Did I have to wonder if I was making the right choices? Yes. Was there a chance I could fail at what I tried? Absolutely. But when I reached out for help, my Dad treated me like an adult. I was 16 years old at the time. His confidence in me helped me to have confidence in myself.
When it comes time for my own children to be making their way in the world, I want them to have confidence in their own choices. I want for them to have the courage to try new things, even if they might fail. And if and when they do fail or make the wrong choice, I want them to be able to regroup, learn, and change direction.
Does that start with shoe-tying or the tricycle? Maybe it does. Only time will tell.