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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

My 16-month-old is in a stage where he wants to do everything for himself. How should I handle this?

Q: My 16-month-old is in that phase when he wants to do everything by himself, from opening a lollipop wrapper to pouring his own milk. He’s too little to do some things without making a mess or getting hurt—he even wants to cut his own food with the knife. How can I reason with him?

A: You can’t. Sixteen-month-olds are not rational beings so forget any strategies that include logic!  What you can do is feel proud that you have nurtured your son’s self-confidence, curiosity, and eagerness to learn. Of course, it’s also true that curious, confident kids can be a handful—just as you describe—because they want to do everything by themselves. The good news is there is a lot you can do to encourage your son’s sense of competence while also keeping him safe and you sane:

Compromise. If he wants to feed himself, but you don’t have all day to wait for him to get an ounce of food in, you can give him a spoon to feed himself while you use another spoon to get most of the meal in his mouth.

Find safe alternatives. There will certainly be times when you have to just say No. Setting these kinds of limits is your job. You can explain that sharp knives are for Mommy and Daddy to use. Then show him how he can use his hands to break up certain foods or help him use a blunt, plastic knife.  (Be sure to hold the knife with him as he uses it to ensure his safety.)

Be his coach. When he gets frustrated because he can’t do it all by myself, label his feelings: It makes you so mad when you can’t open the jar! Introduce him to the word help, and provide the assistance he needs to master the challenge without doing it all for him. This may mean holding your hand over his as you unscrew the top. It leaves him feeling like he has been a part of the solution.

Let your child practice new skills within limits.  If your son wants to pour his own milk and he won’t let you help, consider letting him pour the milk into the cup over the sink or take the milk and cup outside so you don’t have to worry about the mess.  If that’s not possible, you can tell him that you will pour the milk for him but that later you will give him lots of containers he can fill and empty in the bathtub.  Activities like this provide lots of practice so that one day he’ll be able to pour his own milk.

Invite him to be your helper. Offer lots of opportunities to involve him in activities you’re doing, like mixing pancake batter or putting together a new toy. This will allow him to try out his skills without your having to say No so much.

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