Toddlers and Autonomy
Sometime around their first birthday, most babies pull themselves to their feet and stagger forward. That first shaky baby step represents a huge developmental leap. The baby is now a toddler, and the central task of his or her life is to become a separate independent being. Erik Erikson (1963) calls this the stage of autonomy. Of course, not all babies get up and take steps. Some children with disabilities go through the stage of autonomy without becoming mobile. The term toddler doesn’t apply to all children, but most of the material applies to both typically and atypically developing children sometime before the fourth year of life.
Your job as an early care and education practitioner is to not only appreciate this special stage of life, but to help families also appreciate it. That may be harder than it seems, because the behaviors described come from a particular cultural perspectives and are not universally regarded in the same way. For example, the push behind this stage is for children to recognize their power as individuals and learn to assert this power. That isn’t the goal of all families.
In some ways, you may find that the toddler stage is the hardest one for you to find ways to support families whose perception of the child and goals for him or her are different from those advocated here. But those kinds of challenges are always present when working across cultures. It’s important to keep your professional perspective, your personal/cultural perspective, and still allow yourself to open up to each family’s perspective. Not an easy job, but nobody ever said working with young children and their families is easy!
Many adults find the way that toddlers carry out this thrust for autonomy to be a headache, and your job is to help support families in ways that reduce the headache. Families sometimes see the behaviors that come along with this push for independence as difficult to manage. The theorists (who generally see things from a perspective that rates independence as a higher priority than interdependence) explain the meaning behind the behaviors and expect adults to understand and put up with the difficulties. The labels put on this stage by some parents (the terrible twos) and by some experts (the terrific twos) reflect the various ways to look at the behaviors of this stage. The words the theorists use to label the process are seeking autonomy, separating, and individuating. Experts are willing to concede that the behaviors associated with this stage are sometimes “difficult.” The words parents commonly use are stubborn, obstinate, and sometimes even such loaded terms as willful, contrary, and spoiled.
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