Babies need opportunities to try and then practice new skills, and our challenge is to keep remembering to slow down and be open to providing them. The benefits are obvious. Children love to “do it themselves”. Small moments of mastery and accomplishment help them cope with age-appropriate toddler angst and frustrations. The happiest, most self-confident babies are those who are respected as innately capable, encouraged to be active participants in their care (and life), and allowed to be achievers whenever possible. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago during one of my parent-infant classes…
Since only two families out of seven showed up (due to summer vacations), I impulsively decided to offer a new activity during snack time, one I usually introduce with children older than these, thinking it wouldn’t matter if it was a minor disaster with only two at the table. This group of children is 15 to 19 months of age, and so far they’ve been capable of patiently allowing me to wipe their hands, choosing their own bibs, helping me peel the banana before I offer them pieces to eat, all the while remaining politely seated (for the most part) across the table from me. Just a few weeks ago I began pouring little sips of water into real glasses for the children to drink, refilling them as requested. Most of them seem to have that skill down.
So, I brought out a very small plastic measuring cup (smaller than the one I’d been pouring with) and invited the little boy and girl to try pouring their own water. To my amazement, they both did it. For developmental perspective, the one who was more adept (I didn’t have to move his glass at all to catch the water) is a few months younger and a much “later” walker. He has only taken a step or two at 16 months. You just never know what they’re working on.
The children seemed thrilled with their achievement, and I was inspired to try again the next week with a couple more children. The “returnees” were quite eager and excited to repeat their successes.
This time, another relatively late walker (who had been an early crawler) took the measuring cup and started tipping the side without the spout towards her glass. I had to stifle my impulse to help. There was a moment of suspense as she seemed to change her mind, turned the pitcher around and — voila! — poured perfectly. Oh, the expression of satisfaction on her face!
How much longer might I have overlooked the possibility of the children pouring their own water, if not for the very small class? This happened to me many times as a mother, especially with my first child. Only by accident would I discover that my baby was capable of things I hadn’t yet imagined.
So, what other possibilities are there for babies and one-year-olds…what else might they do?
1. Dress and undress (but undressing usually comes first)
This is the most common one parents seem to overlook or just don’t make time for. Babies can take their shoes and socks off if we provide minimal help (like sliding the sock over their heel so they can pull it off from the toe). Parents get used to rushing these things to get them done, but if we slow down and give children a little time, make a conscious effort to “move at the speed of children” (as Jeanne from the website Zella Said Purple aptly describes it), they often do it with only minimal assistance or none at all.
In my classes I ask the children if they would like to take their bibs off and give them to me, and then I usually loosen the Velcro so that they can get the bib off easily. But one child in this one-year-old class surprised me by being able to put her bib on herself. She is fond of wearing not just one, but two overlapping bibs, and she puts them on herself. But in another class I facilitated, 2 year olds weren’t yet doing this. Is that because I did it for them and didn’t give them the opportunity?
Note: none of these things should be expected, requested or insisted upon by parents…just offered as an option, like: “Would you like to try taking your sock off yourself?” Independence and mastery are about accomplishing things by choice. Toddlers sometimes choose not to do things they are fully capable of doing for a variety of healthy reasons. Trust and don’t push.
2. Eat with a spoon
All three of my children ate well with a spoon soon after they turned one, probably because I followed Magda Gerber’s advice to introduce solids with the baby on my lap and use two spoons, so that the baby had one to practice with daily.
3. Climb into a car seat
I’m definitely a creature of habit, and this one took me by surprise with all three children. It would happen by accident when I wasn’t looking. I’d realize…whoa…my baby is quite capable of climbing into her seat and may have been able to for a long while.
4. Climb up and get back down (with spotting)
If babies get used to us taking them down from structures, steps, etc., rather than waiting, spotting and encouraging them while they problem-solve, they can believe themselves incapable and dependent on us to help them do what they can do on their own.
This is another thing babies can begin doing, but only if we 1) don’t show or help them, and 2) don’t lead them to believe that puzzles are tasks that need completing. Just let them fiddle, experiment, leave things partially ‘done’. Don’t teach them there’s a right way, and they’ll retain the confidence to persevere and eventually succeed.
And more generally…
6. Natural gross motor development
7. Self-entertainment – extended periods of uninterrupted independent play
We create this opportunity when we provide safe play spaces that include some open ended play objects (see this video for ideas) and cultivate independent play from the beginning. Babies revel in their free play time when it has been introduced early and gradually becomes a predictable part of their daily routine.
Of course, our babies can’t do any of these things without our support – our patience, restraint, encouragement, and acknowledgement of their struggles and successes. As Magda Gerber explains in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, sensitive observation is the key to knowing what to do when…
“By closely supervising our infants, by allowing them to do what they are capable of, by restraining ourselves from rescuing them too often, by waiting and waiting and waiting, by giving minimal help when they really need it, we allow our infants to learn and grow at their own time, and in their own way.”
I share more about capable babies and toddlers in my new book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
Have your babies surprised you with their abilities? Please share!
(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)
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