Child playing with bubbles
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Kids need opportunities to be independent. As a parent, I’m sometimes tempted to do everything for my toddler, without her input, so that we can get on with the day. Sometimes she just moves...so...slowly. But in my better moments, I remind myself that she’s learning so many skills at this age and is so enthusiastic about all things new, it would really be a shame to not let her have the joy of accomplishing tasks herself, no matter how small. It’s one of those balances parents and caregivers try to strike, day after day; how do we give children the guidance and structure they need while allowing them to grow and explore in their own way? I think we all need to remind ourselves every so often to slow down and reflect on what we can do to nurture a child’s independence.

This is especially true in caring for children with special needs. As a full-time caregiver for a baby with Down Syndrome, I learned the immense value of creating opportunities for a child to practice decision-making and learn about cause and effect. By structuring playtime and routine activities to allow him increasing levels of independence, his family, therapists, and I did our best to help him participate fully in every family and community activity a typical child would. His parents’ insistence that he be included, encouraged, and supported in every way is, I think, the primary reason he has grown into a confident, capable kid.

Whether they have developmental delays or not, children thrive when given opportunities to take charge of age-appropriate tasks. Here are some ways we can nurture children’s independence every day:

    1. Communicate. This starts long before a baby learns to talk. Baby sign language is an especially useful tool in helping a child with a developmental delay learn that he or she can communicate their needs, preferences, and ideas to the rest of the world. I’ll never forget the day we were leaving the library and the little guy I took care of, at 18 months old, made the “Thank You” sign to a man who held the door for us. It was such a clear indication that he was comfortable and confident in his ability to “talk” to adults. And he was able to do that because, from the very beginning, he was encouraged to communicate and everyone around him actively listened to what he was telling us. If your child has a delay and is receiving early intervention services, take full advantage of a speech therapist’s expertise.They have a lot to offer.

    2. Encourage self-feeding. Mealtime is such a great opportunity to help kids develop good habits of self-reliance. Plan for enough time at breakfast, lunch, and dinner to allow your baby to practice feeding himself. It’s especially important for children with special needs to be allowed to experiment with the motor skills related to eating. The experience of unhurried eating is also important for their speech development; it’s one of the ways babies learn how their mouths move. Learning how to pick up a blueberry or use a fork are the building blocks to future skills like holding a pencil or zipping a zipper. And if you set the expectation that your child will feed herself from a very young age, it can help reduce some of the conflict around eating when she reaches toddlerhood.

    3. Ask questions. When adults ask questions, and really listen to the answers, children learn that they are valued and have something to contribute to their families and communities. From the beginning, give your child opportunities to tell you how they are feeling, what they see, what they think. Even a very young baby can tell you that he loves his bath or dislikes being put in his car seat. Acknowledge his opinions, and if you need to do something he won’t like, try to create a choice for him to make.

    4. Share your child’s enthusiasm. Most kids latch on to topics that interest them from a very young age. Right now my daughter is sooo into dinosaurs and barns. A child’s excitement over even mundane things provides caregivers with a wonderful opportunity to encourage curiosity and a love of learning. Take a trip to the library to find a book about dinosaurs and show the child how you look it up in the catalog or encourage her to ask the librarian for help. Show her that you care about her interests and help her explore ways to learn more.

    Kids’ natural curiosity and enthusiasm is one of my favorite things about them. They are just so full of life. I find that allowing them room to experiment and to participate in decision-making makes life more fun for everyone!