3 Steps To Help Children Dress Independently

In this episode: A mom realizes that she and her husband have been helping their 3-year-old to get dressed by actually doing it for him. Recently they’ve taken a step back to allow “ample time for him to do what he can independently,” but he either gives up quickly and demands help, or if they’re patient, he might take an hour to put on his pants. This mom feels they might be missing something that would encourage him to develop these skills.

Transcript of “3 Steps To Help Children Dress Independently”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to a note I received from a parent who’s concerned because she wants to help her son to dress himself more independently. She feels they’ve been helping him a little too much and she’s not sure about some of the steps in the process.

Here’s the note I received:

“I’ve been reading as much of your information as quickly as I can because I see my children responding so well to your advice. My current issue has to do with my three-year-old. As a matter of convenience, his dad and I have helped him get dressed every day by literally dressing him. It didn’t occur to us that he should have been doing more a long time ago. We just did it out of habit. I know he’s capable of most of the tasks of getting dressed. For instance, he can put his pants on, but still struggles greatly with the buttons.

So I’ve taken a huge step back and now make sure to allow ample time for him to do what he can independently. I’m always there for empathy and support, but I want him working through the frustrating parts of what he can do. I’ve tried finding an answer in the things you’ve written but I’m stuck at that point where he gives up very quickly and demands help. The result is always him doing it himself, but yesterday he took and hour to put his pants and underwear back on after using the bathroom. He prefers them off rather than around his ankles. I’m trying to determine if I’m doing things right and just need to stick with it or if I’m missing something really obvious that would help him.

I’m determined to figure this out because obviously I can’t go to school with him in a couple of years to put his pants back on after he uses the bathroom each day. I’ve joked that I’m yearning for the day that I’m complaining that he won’t let me help because he insists on doing everything himself.”

Okay. Well, this mother is trying to determine “if I’m doing things right,” she says and I would say she mostly is. She’s giving him the space to try things himself. And one thing that’s really important that she’s doing is that she has empathy and support for him in his struggles.

But let’s talk about some more details she can add to this to help him make progress in achieving these skills and performing these activities. I’m going to go over some steps that work at any stage of the game with a child, whether we are just starting out in inviting them to participate in practicing these skills, or if we’re trying to make a change later, like this family’s doing.

The first step in trying to encourage a child to be able to be more independent in these care-giving tasks is to (1) be fully connected during these activities. Meaning, this is a time that we put the phone aside. We don’t look at those text messages or answer or phone. We are there for our child. Because caregiving times like dressing, bathing, brushing hair, bedtime rituals, putting band-aids on or with a younger child, changing diapers, these are times that are built for intimacy and children learn our relationship when we’re engaging in these tasks. They learn how to participate and they feel our support.

These are times of bonding. We’re touching our child. We’re helping them with their self-care and we’re teaching in this very organic manner. So taking full advantage of these times is important.

It sounds like this family has been doing that. But what they have fallen into is kind of doing it for him rather than inviting him to participate. And that’s the second step, to (2) invite participation.

It’s important to understand that we can’t force independence. We can’t even coax independence. It has to be chosen by our child. But we can encourage it. And with Magda Gerber’s approach we recommend doing this from birth by perceiving our baby or our toddler as a whole person who we want to invite to participate in every aspect of their lives to the best of their ability.

So that means, yes, giving a little bit of time for a child to be able to participate in the way they can. For example, changing the infant’s diaper. “I need to lift up your bottom a little bit while I slide this diaper under” or “while I take this one off. Can you help me? Can you lift up a little bit?” And we start to see by communicating that our child does begin to participate. Even a very young child, just a month old will begin to join us in these tasks if we open up that invitation for them to participate by communicating. It’s not so much that we’re waiting and expecting our child to do things. We’re just allowing for that back and forth. We’re still moving our child along but doing it in a manner that keeps inviting our child to join.

So inviting our child to participate means communicating what we’re doing. And when we invite, even when we are the ones doing the activity, we’re (3) explaining our process as we go.

What sometimes happens and may be happening with this family, is that she went from doing it completely for him out of habit to now I’m going to take a step back and let him do it. But there’s an in between place that’s actually going to be the most productive. We’re not completely doing it for him and we’re not completely backing off and just waiting for him either.

We’re seeing this as a time of togetherness, encouraging him to take part in it but not forcing him to.

And she mentions that buttons are a struggle. Yes. Buttons are a struggle. They’re very hard to do. Some of these dressing details are quite challenging for children and, if you think about it, it’s pretty complicated to put a button through a button-hole. So the way this might start is the parents, first of all, continuing as they were doing to set time aside to do this task with their child, not expecting, now he’s going to do it and we are not going to participate.

So, “Okay, now it’s time to get dressed. Oh, which shirt do you want to wear? You picked this one” or, “You picked this one last night. Okay. Let’s put this on.”

And then we’re pausing at each step to let him initiate something. But we’re going to pick up the slack and not wait too long, especially if we see that he’s not really working at it, he’s just kind of stalling or waiting, maybe even feeling in a little bit of a power struggle with us because he feels us having an agenda that he’s going to do it. I wouldn’t allow those long pauses where you’re waiting for him. I would keep moving it forward, just giving short pauses for him to join and keep offering the opportunities.

“So, can you put your arm through here? Okay. Cool. We’re going to put this up on your shoulder,” (talking about a sleeve here). “And now, let’s get this other arm on this side. Oh yeah. You’re going to reach that arm over a little bit.” (I’m doing a button-up shirt.) And, “Yeah, okay, we’ll get that through there. Can you push your arm through that sleeve? Great. And now here are these buttons we’ve got to do. Do you want to try this?”

And then he doesn’t seem to be showing that he’s trying or wants to try it. “Okay. Let me see. How about… I’m going to hold this buttonhole open. Can you put the button in there? Do you want to do that part?”

Let’s say he’s still not doing it then I would say, “Okay. I’m going to get this … it has to fit right through there. I’m going to put it around.”

So I’m explaining my process.

Now let’s say he does want to do it but he’s struggling. “Now you’re trying to get that through. That’s so hard.” And then you could help with your finger the tiniest bit so that he can still be the one to do it, but you’re making it a little easier for him.

So that’s what I mean by inviting participation but not just leaving him to do it himself. Because even if children can dress themselves, they often can’t do it at that moment, because transitions (as I’ve talked about before) are very hard for toddlers. Any time they’re transitioning from point A to point B and all the steps involved in that, they tend to get stuck there.

Also, this mother mentions that she has other children. I’m wondering if there’s a younger child or maybe an infant, because if that’s the case, then an older child, even if he was older than three, he could be five or six even, might be longing to have some of that physical care that he sees the baby getting. And therefore, he really needs that connection time, that one-on-one few moments of us helping him get dressed. So I would understand that and see the value in these moments of connection before, maybe he’s going off to school and we’re going to be separating. Or I’m going off to work. Or just, we’re starting our day and I’m going to be taking care of his sibling or his siblings.

This is prime time. This can set the tone for a whole day that we get to join in this moment.

So with the pants, I would do the same. “Can you get your foot in here? Oh, okay. It looks like you want to do that part yourself. You’re pulling it up, all the way up. Now here’s that button again. This is the hard part.”

Or the snap. Those snaps can be really hard for children too. With that, you might hold one side of it so that you’re giving it traction so that he can push the other side to make it snap. And if he has a zipper on his pants you can hold his pants together tautly so that he’s able to get that zipper up.

Be in this with him. We’re not overriding his abilities in that moment (again, it’s always about in that moment) but we’re not expecting them either and leaving him to do it unless he chooses to.

When he chooses to struggle then, yes, you can give him as much time as you have. But when this mother says he took and hour to put his pants and underwear back on after using the bathroom, that sounds like he was stuck and he really needed some help and some nurturing, some closeness. And, “Yes. I’d love to help you put these pants on. I’m going to help you.” And then again, empathy for any feelings he has is wonderful, staying in this with him but also not feeling like we have to drag it out and wait for him when he’s clearly disinterested or stalling or stuck.

So she says, “I’ve tried finding an answer in the things you’ve written but I’m stuck at the point where he gives up very quickly and demands help.”

When children demand help, I would always say, “Yes. Yes. I’d love to help.” But “help” doesn’t mean that we have to just start doing it for him. Help that’s empowering for children is helping with our emotional support. “Yes. I’m here. What do you need help with? Oh, these pants, they’re hard. You need some help.”

And then continuing to communicate and do the minimal. Let him do the maximum that he’s willing to do, but not trying to force him to do more. “You need help with these pants. Yeah. This is a tough part.” Or maybe you just feel like having my help this morning. That’s okay. I love to help you. I love to dress you.

“Do you want to be the one to put the button through?” “Do you want to be the one to do the zip?”

“That’s frustrating! I can hold this, make it a little easier for you.”

And now we see that he really does want to keep doing it so then we might wait and let him be frustrated. “That’s so frustrating when you’re trying to get zippers going and they seem to get stuck sometimes. I hate when that happens. Ah, there you got it a little bit. Okay. Cool. Up, up. Yeah, did it! You did it.”

That’s all we have to do. Just be there for our children. We want to (1) connect. We want to (2) invite participation and (3) communicate our process, leaving space for him to do as much as he can and what he’s willing to do.

And then this parent says, “I’m determined to figure this out because obviously I can’t go to school with him in a couple of years to put his pants back on.”

And that absolutely won’t be happening. I think sometimes as parents we can let ourselves go into that future fear place, that anticipation that if your child’s not doing it now, then they’re never going to be able to do it or they’re not going to be able to do it in a few years. It’s interesting because I think a lot of us have the tendency to do that, but it actually transmits something to our children that makes it harder for them, in a way, because it brings our own tension into the situation. We can’t help but feel tense if we’re concerned that our child has an issue. I don’t know if this parent really does or if she’s just saying that. But it will help to, as much as possible, trust our child. They’re very capable. And there are a lot of things again, that they can actually do but they just can’t do in that moment, in that transition, in this time of life. When the baby’s over there and that baby’s getting held and hugged all day and touched, so meeting our child where he is or she is.

This mother joked that she’s yearning for the day that’s she’s complaining “he won’t let me help because he insists on doing everything himself.” That day is coming very soon. I can assure her of that. Especially if she doesn’t try to urge it or make it happen. Children have a natural drive to be gradually more and more independent and when they’re not feeling able, there’s always a reason. And it’s better to help them through and give them what they need.

I hope some of this helps.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

Both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or you can go to the books section of my website. Or you can go to the books section of my website. can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in E-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and apple.com. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in eBook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and apple.com.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I loved this! I really appreciate the reminder that morning routines can be connection opportunities.

    Would you adjust your response at all for a kid that is 6 y/o rather than 3?

    1. Thanks, Samuel. I wouldn’t adjust my response if my child seemed to want that help and connection. It’s all relative. Personally, I would love someone to pick out an outfit for me before I go out (and I’m no youngster!).

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