Self-Help Skills in Babies and Toddlers

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Another behavior that indicates growing autonomy is the push for self-help skills. How the adults respond to this and to the exploring behavior will determine to some extent the child’s adult behavior. Children who aren’t allowed to touch or to try things on their own get a message about their own capabilities. When restricted to an extreme, they can lose their curiosity, their willingness to take risks, and their drive to be independent of others and do things for themselves.

When independence is a strong cultural priority, the first stirrings of it prompt adults to begin to encourage and facilitate it. However, in some cultures interdependence is the priority, and signs of independence may trigger a push on the part of the adult to work harder to promote the cultural goal. For example, in Japan some parents find their children too independent from the start, so they begin right away giving lessons in dependence. The goal is to help children see themselves as connected, not separate. When at about 9 months of age children begin to assert themselves—pushing away the adult hand trying to feed them, for example—the lessons in interdependence intensify. The specific objective is to teach children to accept help graciously, even if they can do it for themselves.

Sometimes adults share responsibility for the same child, and one pushes independence while the other struggles against the same behaviors. These two adults may be parents in a cross-cultural marriage, or teacher and parent. If they are in disagreement about their goals and priorities for the child, they need to sit down and talk about their differences. It’s hard on a child to have two conflicting approaches to deal with.


Take, for example, self-feeding. The teacher who values independence encourages self-feeding as soon as the baby grabs for the spoon or can pick up a teething biscuit and get it to her mouth. This caregiver gives the baby her own spoon and lets her help, and before long lets her feed herself—as soon as she can get enough in her mouth to count. Also, she cuts up small bits of appropriate finger foods and makes them available for the child to self-feed. Because what this teacher does is considered developmentally appropriate practice among early childhood practitioners, she won’t feel a conflict until she runs into a parent who see things differently.

Some parents have different priorities for toddlers. Self-feeding, in particular, is not a priority for all parents. For some parents, the goal for their children is learning to help others rather than helping oneself. Therefore, they model helping skills by spoon-feeding children into the preschool years. They may justify their actions in a number of ways, including their desire to keep things neat and clean and not waste food, for example. When a teacher and a parent see something like self-feeding from very different perspectives, arguments and angry feelings can result.

It’s important as a family-support person that you not get into arguments about your different perspectives, but work on your relationship with the family and practice good communication skills so you can work out differences together. See Strategy Box for some ideas about how to work through conflicts.

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