15 real ways to make your kid feel independent

One of the biggest developmental milestones for your toddler is a feeling that they control their destiny. Here’s how to support his new sense of autonomy.

Your toddler still can’t do much by himself — tie his own shoes or make himself breakfast. But there are actually quite a few things two-year-olds can do for themselves, and it’s important that they begin to take ownership of these tasks — however small — as it helps them understand the importance of being independent.

Yes, there will be some tears and meltdowns associated with your child’s pursuit of autonomy. But there will be even more cheers and applause as your youngster discovers he doesn’t need Dad every time he has to use the bathroom or wants to play a game. Looking to encourage your child’s sense of independence? Start here.

1. Allow them to turn the page.

A small gesture, but an important one: Involve your toddler in story hour by having him turn the book’s pages. He can even hold the book as you read — the goal here is to simply make them feel like they are dictating the pace of the activity rather than sitting passively as you do it for them.

2. Let them take the lead with potty training.

Some kids catch on quickly. Other kids take their time learning the when, where, and how. The important thing is that you let them figure it out on their terms, and in their own time. Your job is to show them what to do (and repeat as many times as necessary), and cheer them on when they do it. Their job is to connect the dots between the urge to go and the place to go in. Using Pull-Ups® Training Pants will help bridge the gap between these two concepts until they’ve mastered it.

3. Praise their efforts.

Doing something on their own for the first time is exciting! And while hovering over them is absolutely not the right approach (this is about independence, remember?), jumping in with a “That’s amazing!” once the mission is accomplished (flushing the potty or throwing the wrapper in the trash) makes toddlers practically burst with pride at what they’ve achieved.

4. Have them eat like an adult.

You’re not your kid’s line chef. That said, offering a variety of foods at mealtime doesn’t just increase the odds that your toddler will find something she likes to eat, it also gives her that grown-up feeling of choosing what she wants for dinner, just like adults do. At the same time, you should give them some limited choices. For example: “Tonight we have two vegetable choices. Should we have peas or carrots?” In phrasing it this way, you are taking away the bigger question (“Do you want vegetables?”) and replacing it with an either/or option makes your toddler feel like he is in control of his dinner choices. You are also giving him an opportunity to make decisions not just for himself, but for the whole family.

5. Have them choose their own outfit.

Getting dressed on his own is a major milestone, if only because it buys you a few extra minutes to get dressed yourself in the morning. Most kids won’t master this skill until grade school, but you can plant the seed by asking him to decide what outfit he wants to wear for the day.

6. Have them help “cook” dinner.

At this age, two-year-olds are obsessed with doing whatever it is that dad and mom do, whether that’s folding the laundry, ironing a shirt, or chopping vegetables. None of that, of course, is appropriate for your toddler, but they can help by doing simple things: Placing the chopped veggies in a salad bowl, for instance, or stirring the cake batter with a wooden spoon. Assign your kid a task that makes him feel like he’s contributing to the family meal; it drives home the idea that every person plays a small part in the bigger picture.

7. Forget about being perfect.

Trying to do things for themselves is tough on toddlers. So tough that actually about half the tasks your toddler “completes” will bear no resemblance to your intended outcome. That’s OK. This is one time where the overused phrase “it’s the thought that counts” really is true.

8. Give them control of the toy box.

What comes out must go back in. Young children aren’t capable of complicated cleanups, but if they are able to remove all their action figures from the well-stocked bin on the floor, then they are also coordinated enough to put them back once playtime is over. Don’t make it feel like a chore — crown them King and Queen of the Toy Box, and explain as rulers, they must make sure their loyal subjects do as they are told and return home after their adventures in the kingdom are over.

9. Go halvsies.

If he puts on his left shoe, you’ll put on his right one. If she pulls on her shirt, you’ll do the buttons. Encourage independence in a reluctant child by splitting the task at hand in half.

10. Have them get their own snack …

Keep easy-to-open jars of pretzels, bowls of washed apples, and other healthy choices on a low shelf in your pantry that your youngster can reach. When snack time comes, tell to your toddler to retrieve a snack from the shelf. (You might follow him into the kitchen the first few times to supervise.) Kids derive real satisfaction out of self-feeding.

11. … And clear their own plate.

Rituals around setting and clearing the table are a great place to begin teaching kids that dinner doesn’t just appear like magic — it is lovingly provided by someone doing hard work in the kitchen. Toddlers can’t carry anything heavy or hot (or anything that will likely spill). But they can pitch in with bringing napkins, utensils, and non-breakable plates over to the table, and removing the items when the meal is finished.

12. Ask them to draw you a picture.

Or color in a shape from her activity book. While arts and crafts might not scream independence-building activity, the concept of “making something” is linked to the idea of autonomy (“See what I can do?!”). Help your little Picasso shine by requesting drawings of dad, mom, and siblings, and celebrate like crazy when she delivers.

13. Let them fight it out.

If your kid gets into a squabble with another child at the playground, give them a little space to see if they can sort this out by themselves. They may only be a toddler, but they are starting to learn that other people have feelings, too, and not everyone thinks exactly the way he does about playtime or sharing toys. If the fight does not resolve, you can step in but still allow the kids to work together to find a solution. Ask each one for his side of the story, then repeat it back to be sure everyone hears what the other is feeling. Request each child think of a way to help his friend feel better about the situation. Try to implement their suggestions as best as possible, and move on.

14. Put them in charge of the hamper.

He’s not ready to vacuum and mop, but your toddler can contribute to keeping his space clean by placing dirty clothes in the kid-sized laundry basket in his room after he wears them. The important thing to emphasize is that this is your child’s domain, and as the ruler of said domain, he’ll want to be sure everything is in its proper place. Keeping his room tidy isn’t punishment, it’s a privilege that comes from being in charge.

15. Let her brush her teeth.

You’ll most likely have to follow up with a more thorough scrubbing afterward until around age four, but if you want to fast-track your kid’s sense of personal responsibility, let them apply the gel to the brush, and the brush to their mouth. Have them watch you first — especially the spitting in the sink part at the end. Then do it together facing the mirror, so you can check that all systems are a go.

This article first appeared on Fatherly.