Embracing your toddler's newfound independence
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
Next week, A will turn two. It’s an exciting age, full of rapid leaps in understanding and newfound abilities. I find it fascinating to watch babies, who have been so dependent on you, develop their own sense of self and express their individual personalities. Whilst this process begins at birth, by two you can really notice their individual character shining through.
It’s fun to watch your baby and their friends develop into their own little people, but with this process comes the challenge for parents of letting go, and of thinking about boundaries. For younger babies, boundaries are mostly related to safety or the natural consequences of the physical impossibility of certain desires. As frustrating as these may be for both babies and their parents, they are more or less self-limiting. Providing a ‘yes space’ for your baby (safe place where they can explore and play freely) and offering your baby parent-approved options to choose from on a regular basis can head off a lot of potential ‘battles’ before stress levels begin to rise.
However, by two, children are often able to see beyond the options you offer them. They are independent people with their own wants and desires, and are becoming more physically capable in working to meet these aims. Once they have set their goal, they will try and achieve it, experimenting with different means if their first attempt was unsuccessful. It is at this stage that it becomes apparent that your child’s goals are not always the same as yours, and you need to find a new way to approach them in order to continue to build a respectful, caring relationship.
The first time your young child doesn’t do what you asked them, you might be puzzled. The second time, you will likely start to become frustrated. The message many of us have received throughout our lives is that it is up to us as parents to control our children, and we suddenly feel stressed and overwhelmed when we realise that we don’t know how to do that in a way that doesn’t involve yelling or physical punishment. We may know that those aren’t techniques we wish to perpetuate, but we have never seen alternatives modelled for us so aren’t even sure there are other effective options.
A few months after X had turned 2, we headed to our local library for rhyme time as we did every Friday morning. On leaving, we walked back to our car, parked around the corner under the one tree nearby. Usually, X would wait by the fence, intently observing school students through their classroom windows as I started the car and switched on the air conditioner (it would have been over 40˚C (104˚F), even at 10am). However, on this particular day, as I started the car X decided to continue walking up the footpath. I called to him, letting him know the car was ready to get in, but he kept on walking. Luckily, it was a quiet road and the carpark was empty, so I quickly dumped our books in the car (which was still running) and walked after him. It was hot, I had A in the sling (she was only a few weeks old), and I just wanted to get to the air conditioned café where we were meeting our friends. I really couldn’t be bothered chasing him, so I just followed him down the footpath (I also suspected that, had I ran after him, he would have been more likely to run out into the carpark or onto the road). As X was approaching the driveway at the end of the carpark, two women came out of the school looking very worried. They seemed only slightly relieved when I said he was with me, but just that brief snippet of conversation was enough to disrupt X’s focus and, having reached the driveway, he turned and came back to me. I took his hand, and we walked calmly back to the car (the two women were stunned and immediately apologised).
For a few months after that, I always held X’s hand when walking to or from the car. I also ordered an onbuhimo (baby carrier that you wear on your back) so I could carry him while I had A in a sling on my front. Those were his choices, hold my hand or go on my back. Sometimes he wasn’t happy with either option, and we could choose to stay home. Other times, we needed to be somewhere (or to get back to the car so we could get home), so I needed to calmly choose whichever option I felt I was most able to carry out.
Whilst some of these struggles can be pre-emptively avoided (offering a shoulder ride before you get to a point where they have been known to run, or making sure you’re home well in advance of nap time), this isn’t always possible. In those moments, I try to remember ‘they’re not giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time’ (I don’t know who said that first, please enlighten me if you do know). It’s hard realising that you can’t keep your young child happy all the time, that they have the right to be upset when their desires aren’t granted and that that’s okay.
By remaining calm ourselves, we are better equipped to assist our children when they need us most. There’s no need to punish them just because they have a different plan to our own, we can empathise with them and either problem solve to find a solution, or hold our boundary where options are limited, keeping in mind how we might plan differently in future. Ultimately, I would rather have a child that thinks for themselves rather than one who quietly acquiesces to authority. Whilst an awareness of rules, laws and social customs is an important part of being an active member of any community, I feel it is my responsibility to guide my children to understand these processes, rather than just punishing them for failing to meet them.
This isn’t something that came naturally to me. I knew it was unrealistic to expect my two-year-old to just do whatever I said, but I didn’t feel it appropriate to use physical discipline, ‘time out’, yelling or shaming. I hadn’t seen any alternatives modelled, and all my parenting struggles up until that point had been easily solved with a cuddle or a breastfeed. Nevertheless, I knew there must be something I could try. I searched a couple of Facebook groups and spent many hours trawling the internet until I was able to feel more confident in accepting my children’s independence, even when it was at odds with my own desires.
Being able to step back and assess why I was saying no to things or setting limits was an important part of feeling more confident in the boundaries I did need to set. Sometimes, there was an obvious reason, such as my child’s safety or the accepted standard of behaviour in a certain public space, but other times I realised there was no actual reason why my child shouldn’t be performing a certain action so was able to let them continue without them even knowing that I had originally planned to put a stop to it. I think one of the hardest parts was letting go of the feeling that I, as the parent, ‘should’ be in control of my child’s actions at all times (including any negative responses they were having to any boundaries that I set).
At the time, I had put the carpark incident down to X still adjusting to life with a new sibling. I have since had many friends come to me with similar stories, all a few months after turning two but not necessarily with the recent addition of a sibling. It seems this is a hard time for many first-time parents, so I would like to share with you now the links I found useful myself, and that I frequently share with friends (and may well find myself referring back to in a few months’ time).
There are many more excellent resources out there, but this collection introduces the key concepts that helped me the most during this challenging stage:
The following aren’t specifically about toddlers, but I found them beneficial for gaining the perspective needed to step back and reassess my responses (the first two are probably the links I share most often, for any parenting-related matters):