23 steps to nurturing autonomy in our toddlers

25 June, 2013

We went to a pyjama party at the Science Museum last week. It was a VIP party, with just the one guest; Ramona. Obviously the thousands of other children and adults looking around the rockets didn’t get the invite- they were in school uniforms and daytime wear- ha! Suckers!

Was it embarrassing wandering around this crowded place with a toddler in her Number One Favourite and Best outfit of mismatched PJs, barefeet and carrying a cuddly toy? Not really. I have an incredibly high tolerance for public humiliation- I was just happy that they were clean on and that it wasn’t her second favourite outfit which is her birthday suit/ in the altogether/ au natural/ stark raving naked.


Ramona wears alot of peculiar things- a Spiderman top with a tutu, a princess dress with a Bob the Builder hard hat, wooly tights and a Hawaiian shirt. Our hand-me-downs come from a variety of places and it makes her fit right in with the local hipsters rocking their charity-shop chic. And I just don’t get involved. Since as long as she has wanted to we have been happy to let Ramona choose her clothes- for me it is just one of the steps we can do to nurture her autonomy.

A few weeks back a Guardian article Leave Our Kids Alone did the rounds. It was a snippet from Jay Griffiths’ book “The riddle of the Childscape” in which she describes the wild, uninhibited childhood of more primitive societies in a way that possibly made every parent in the UK want that for their children! Gangs of rambunctious children running together free through jungles pitted against our over cautious, often quite isolated experience where the metal confines of the playground provide our kids with their only taste of freedom.

We had a good discussion on my Facebook page (come and find us!) about it and concluded that nurturing this sense of freedom comes down to generating autonomy in everyday life. Perhaps this is especially important for us urban dwellers for whom letting our kids roam alone in fields is a pretty remote ideal.

I am fairly sure that the more autonomous a child is be the more likely that together the space you occupy will be a cooperative one. The more in control of some aspects of their lives they are, the less defiant in other areas toddlers will be.

Nurturing autonomy in toddlers

Here are the things we do to nurture autonomy for Ramona:

Ramona sets the pace for her own independence. The worst thing for our kid’s autonomy would be to force them in to it! We wait for cues from Ramona that tell us she is ready for something and then figure out how to help her work it out.

She wears the clothes she chooses. Once it became obvious she wanted to get involved in this area we gave her an option of two outfits but now she asks for specific things (mostly her Pirate pyjamas.) And most of the time she just chooses to be completely in the buff. We accept that completely just not outside the house.

We are stripping back the help we give her getting dressed. So far we are up to just putting her head through the hole in the tee shirt- she finds the arms. She can also put shorts, skirts and pants on herself- even if it does mean a few minutes of hopping about with two legs in one hole first!

We keep food in accessible places for her- either snacks on plates on coffee tables so she can help herself, or cereal in a cupboard she can reach, along with a bowl. Early on this did result in a few branflakes on the floor but we got there in the end. (And there would be a tidier way of doing this I am sure!) This not only allows her to be in charge of her hunger but also helps us avoid the massive blood sugar lows that generate tantrums.

We let her be the judge of what she likes to eat and doesn’t, and when she is full or not. We like her to try things that we are fairly sure she likes but we don’t make a big deal about it and we let her refuse to eat things (onions are the only thing i can think of!) We also really trust her decision to stop eating her meal. Sometimes she eats every scrap and has seconds and other times she’ll only eat a mouthful or so. There is a whole blog post I could write on this but I just don’t believe in mealtime battles or coercing food into our kids. I want our meal times to be a pleasure together, and for the rest of our children’s lives. And I’d be mad if another person tried telling me I wasn’t finished yet when I was!

We have organised our home so that Ramona can do or be wherever she wants. We keep laptops and things we don’t want her touching out of the way. This way we limit any interference with her movements. I just don’t agree with keeping precious things within reach in order to teach them “rules”- it is totally natural and instinctive thing for them to explore so we mustn’t set things up in order for them to fulfill a “naughty toddler” role!

Find a wild place! Make it your mission, search high and low, for somewhere you can get to where your toddler can just be herself and explore without any interruptions. It might be a fenced dog free area at a park, or a huge sand pit within the grounds of a child care centre, or a huge garden of a friend (these are our own wild places) – somewhere that you can sit and zone out while she enters “Flow”. Read this excellent piece by Nature Play on becoming an expert at this!

We don’t interrupt. This is quite a hard one as our default as adults is to give an opinion on our children’s activities! “OOh look, you are reading a book!” “Hey, great dancing!” If they are happy and engaged in something, just leave them to it, to be the boss of that activity and the feelings they are having while doing it.

We do this at the play ground too. It requires a determined shrug of the shoulders towards other parents who give off a “Why don’t you help her?!” kind of a vibe. But, unless she asks for it, and even then we sometimes just encourage  with a “Maybe try it this way”, we stay out of her way. If it is something high or tricky that Ramona hasn’t done before I stay within catchable distance but mostly I let her attack the ladders and nets with abandon. I’m fairly confident that unless the bad luck pixies attack (and they can attack in the most tame of circumstances; Ramona broke her leg falling half a metre!) kids are pretty good at working within their capabilities.

We give Ramona a say in what we are going to do during the day. “Park or garden?” “Hanging out with Ivy or Esme?” We are only just on the cusp of doing this but I hope it will become a habit for us, so that eventually the girls understand that they are a key part in our family decision making process.

Before people come over to play we give Ramona a chance to put some toys away that she doesn’t want to be played with. This gives her the sense that she has chosen the toys that we do all play with and avoids a bit of angst. We also allow her to choose when she is ready to share. If kids are tussling over a toy I ask the one who has it to say when it is the other kid’s turn. It sounds like a gamble, but 30 seconds in they will nearly always yell “Annie! Your turn!”

We create opportunities to help around the house and in the kitchen. She cut up the mushrooms the other day (they were a bit wonky but hey!) and stirs the rice. When we go off on our European trip I’m gonna get her doing the dishes *high fives* – our ceramic sink (HELLO? Who’s idea was THAT? Looks beaut but even Tim and I break one piece of crockery a day on it.) doesn’t really give her chance to do real washing up.

The authors of How To Talk So Kids Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (the greatest book by the way, every parent should read it!) have some brilliant suggestions too, some of which might work for older kiddos:

Let them make choices.  Turn everything into a presentation of choice. Rather than “Please take your medicine” make it “Would you like to takes your tablets with water or ginger ale?” Alternatively, if you think a forced choice isn’t much of a choice at all, present the problem and allow them to come up with the solution.

Show respect for a child’s struggle. Don’t help them out of it but verbalise the frustration. “That is quite tricky, it can be hard to do it by yourself.” Add some helpful information too “Sometimes it helps to come down the ladder backwards.”

Don’t ask too many questions. Sometimes being bombarded with questions is a parents way to connect but ends up with the opposite result. The often asked “Did you have fun today?” is loaded too – a child can feel the pressure to experience an activity a certain way.

Don’t rush to answer questions.  Usually when a child asks a question she has already done some thinking about the answer. Sometimes just encouraging the conversation is enough “Hmm, you wonder about that.”  Or asking them what they think, or repeating it back to them. The process of searching for the answer is as valuable as the answer itself.

Encourage them to use resources outside of the home. This allows them to be free from dependence on you and that there is a whole community of resources that can be tapped into. Have them ask the petshop owner their questions about animals.

Don’t take away hope. It can be too easy to say in response to a child’s yearning for, say, a horse “That’s ever gonna happen!” Allow them to dream and fantasize, trying to prepare children for the possibility of disappointment can deprive them of important experiences.

Let her own her own body. Avoid tucking in their shirt, rearranging their hair band, brushing dirt off. It is an invasion of their physical privacy.

Stay out of the minutiae of a child’s life.  “Sit up when you do your homework.” “Get your hair out of your eyes!” “Why are you doing that?” Just let them get on with it!

Don’t talk about a child in front of him, no matter how young he is. When a child hear themselves discussed this way it can make them feel like an object, a possession of their parents.

Let a child answer for herself. “Does she like having a baby sister?” A real mark of respect for the child’s autonomy is is to say to the inquiring adult “Ramona can tell you, she’s the one who knows.”

Show respect for your child’s readiness.  Express confidence in her ultimate readiness. “I’m not concerned. When you’re ready you’ll get into the water.”

Watch out for too many No’s. Some children experience NO as a call to arms and they mobilise their energy for a counter attack.  Alternatives to No include:  Giving information, accepting their feelings, describing the problem and giving yourself time to think.

Phew. What a list! I hope it might help you feel okay about living in a Western, urban society where our tots can’t run free with machetes. Your child can still experience the beauty of self-governance and the liberation of wearing PJ’s in inappropriate settings.

In what ways do you encourage independence in your child?




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  • Thalia Kehoe Rowden 25 June, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Just wonderful, and very timely for us. We’ve just been discussing gentle approaches to eating and completely agree with you.

    Thanks for this excellent, thorough list. Fab!

    • Lucy 25 June, 2013 at 8:32 pm

      It’s sad about meal times as I think it is often rooted in a parent’s fear- of a child waking in the night due to hunger/ being malnourished.

      • Thalia Kehoe Rowden 26 June, 2013 at 12:50 pm

        I’ve been thinking more about this – particularly the food and the commentary when kids are playing: ‘Oh, you’re doing the wheels!’

        Two things I have found helpful with the food question: 1) the idea that it is my job to offer a range of good food, but not to make it be eaten and 2) a study I read about that followed 2-year-olds’ eating habits and showed that over a two-week period they ate an appropriate range of foods, though it might have been only rice one day and only apples the next.

        • Thalia Kehoe Rowden 26 June, 2013 at 12:52 pm

          Hm, and also (!) that in allowing eating autonomy, we’re doing the best thing we can to help our son listen to his own body and appetite, so he will eat appropriately for the rest of his life. It’s hugely counter-productive to contradict him if he thinks he’s full/hungry/in need of more bread/beans/strawberries. He is the only one who can judge that, and the skill he needs to learn is how to interpret his body’s signals, not how to clean his plate for his mother.

          • Lucy 27 June, 2013 at 7:50 pm

            Yes, exactly, exactly! Maybe I should do a whole post about this as lots ofpeople have picked up on it!

        • Katy 6 February, 2014 at 9:40 am

          I’ve definitely has to come to terms with the Meal in a Month idea, we have carbs weeks, veggie weeks and cheese binges. The other morning it was hot chocolate and frozen peas for breakfast…

  • Hannah 25 June, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    What a fantastic post with so many tips and advice I am sure to take away with me! Thank you for all the book suggestions too!

    • Lucy 25 June, 2013 at 8:32 pm

      Such a pleasure 🙂

  • Kate 25 June, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Love this! Read over it a couple of times to let it really sink in. I only wish I could have observed and experienced this when I was growing up.

    It’s so hard to change what has been drilled into us from day one – need to find a way to make this way of thinking natural and constant! We need more people who think like this to support, encourage and influence parents and parents-to-be.

    Thanks again for your refreshing words of advice and wisdom!

    K x

    • Lucy 25 June, 2013 at 9:20 pm

      Yes, you know what, it is so true. Even when we are trying our hardest we slip back in to the default need to control. It’s so important to knmow others who parent this way to help you not feel like a loon!

  • Frank 25 June, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Love the idea of presenting them with a problem rather than a force choice (Great phrase BTW!) I’ve never found those to work well.

    • Lucy 25 June, 2013 at 9:21 pm

      Yeah, good, eh? We are just about able to do this with Ramona. I bet it works great with older kiddos.

      • Frank 26 June, 2013 at 12:54 am

        I think it would work with my 2 yr old already up to a point. He’s very verbal and will often give his perspective on things!
        My stock phrase for building autonomy comes from Barbara Coloroso: if it is not life threatening, morally threatening or unhealthy, let it be.

  • Jem 25 June, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Hehe, I had to chuckle. Your “We don’t interrupt.” is my “I’m ignoring you so that I can get on with housework / work / feeding Oliver”. Your “She wears the clothes she chooses.” is my “I really don’t understand fashion in any way and I don’t want this to be a battle so where w/e the hell you want” & so on…

    I’m totally going to change what I see as my ‘negatives’ to actually being ‘positives’ though – it’s all just state of mind, right? 😉

    • Jem 25 June, 2013 at 6:51 pm

      That should have been “wear”, not “where”. It’s been a long day.

    • Lucy 25 June, 2013 at 9:21 pm

      Oh yeah, hello, TOTALLY turn it into good, intentional parenting strategies! People write books about this shizzle! 🙂

  • mrs_scholes 25 June, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    My younger brother regularly went to Sainsburys in a Santa hat. In June. Later he wore a dog collar. Not like he was pretending to be a vicar. Like he was pretending to be a dog.

    My mum used to say, ‘Is it hurting any one?’ I am hoping this will be my approach to parenting as our daughter grows up. Think, ‘That’s not the proper way to do it! *deep breath* But is it actually hurting anyone? No? Stand back.’

    • Lucy 25 June, 2013 at 8:31 pm

      Ah, yes, perfect and wonderful and exactly what we hope to do too! It isn’t lazy parenting it is deliberately giving our kids space to grow. Love it.

  • Antonio Marks 26 June, 2013 at 12:56 am

    Those tips and list of books you mentioned are really great. I learned from the pieces of advice you gave in nurturing autonomy for all the kids. Great post!

    • Lucy 27 June, 2013 at 7:56 pm

      Thanks Antonio 🙂

  • vicky myers 26 June, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Great post, will read again:) I have always let my 6 year old choose what she wears, at times I wonder at our decision to let her, for example when I see her in an extreme mixture of winter and summer clothes (light cotton skirt, thick tights, woolly hat and sun glasses). One of the best responses I heard was an adult saying to her, Amy did you choose your own clothes today? I can see you like bright colours. I will read How To Talk So Kids Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk 🙂

    • Lucy 27 June, 2013 at 7:57 pm

      That’s a nice response. I hate it when I hear myself saying “Oh, you look nice” to little people as I really don’t like people making a fuss of Ramona’s apearance. Sometimes I say it carelessly. I will revert to something more like this!

  • Mary 26 June, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    This is brilliant – we try and do these things and I find on Good Days (ie when i’ve had enough sleep and don’t feel like my head is stuffed with cotton wool) we get on so well it just happens like this – I mean, why would you disrespect someone you’re that close to and enjoy being with so much? But on Bad Days… it’s really hard! I have no patience because I just don’t have the extra energy for creative solutions to issues that arise. and often she doesn’t either as we set each other off. Stupid things seem massive deals (like refusing to change out of pyjamas!) and we have rows about stuff that on good days I can ignore/rise above. It makes me feel really sad that my parenting is so inconsistent but maybe the whole “witnessing the full range of human emotions” thing will actually be benefitting her in the long term!

    • Lucy 27 June, 2013 at 7:59 pm

      Oh my, I totally hear you. What I find astonishing is how exhausting those days are though, how, once you are in that cycle it is really hard to snap out of it, to get back in sync. I can’t believe some people spend all day everyday in that place, so hard.
      I really agree that we mustn’t hide feelings from our little ones, they need to see it, I really think that.

  • joanna 27 June, 2013 at 8:38 am

    Loved reading this post! I have the same attitude to parenting , much to my own parents horror and confusion!! Whom, it is fair to say, had the stark opposite parenting style. Currently my mum is mortified that I am allowing Leo to wear whatever he likes to our wedding, currently his outfit of choice is either his ChewBaka costume or Darth Vadar….Which will be interesting to behold in a Catholic Cathedral! :-D…Hahaha, but I am cool with it!

    • Lucy 27 June, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      OH WOW LOVE IT! Hehehe. So cool. He will look back on those pictures and just know you guys sought to give him every taste of freedom. Brilliant.

      • Ali hoo 29 June, 2013 at 6:33 pm

        My daughter wears some form of ‘fancy’ dressing up every day. Her rabbit ears are her favourite, but yesterday saw me making a bat man costume out of an old t-shirt ( VERY Effective and took all of 10 minutes!) and then a brides head dress. Her fashion sense is ‘eclectic’ to say the least!

  • Becky Brown 27 June, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Great post, I agree with so much! I was wondering what your thought were on haircuts? We have an almost 4 year old who has never liked getting his hair cut but as he’s got older trying to get him into the chair has resulted in massive tantrums. I want him to want to get a haircut and it not be so traumatic for him. I’m beginning to think that actually it is an invasion of his personal space and maybe we should just wait until he’s ready? Even if it results in hair down to his knees!?

    • Lucy 27 June, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      Well, hey, just trust your instincts there Becky! (I like where they have led you hehe)

  • victoriananana 28 June, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Such a lovely post with some great ideas. I try very hard to give my toddler as much free rein as possible and she responds so much better to options rather than me giving orders! I do struggle sometimes as she is quite, er, single minded and loves to play with the things she isn’t suppsed to – I really love what you say about arranging the house so that she can’t actually access the ‘naughty’ things!

    I’d love to know what you (or anyone else actually) do about things Ramona doesn’t want to do, but needs to – for example cleaning teeth! My daughter violently dislikes doing this, and if I leave it in her hands it will never ever get done. We use tickle distraction at the moment – it gets her mouth open and she isn’t crying at least, but this often doesn’t work and we both end up upset!

    • Frank 28 June, 2013 at 6:35 pm

      I have an approach that is working at the moment. I say to my 2yr old “before we go out, you need you brush your teeth so they stay strong. I’m going to read my book on the couch and you get your brush when you’re ready.” Like the turn taking idea above he’ll bring it over in under a minute usually and if he doesn’t, I get extra couch time!

    • Ali hoo 29 June, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      With regard to teeth cleaning – with my 3 year old we have put the tooth brush and tooth paste within easy reach so she can start the cleaning herself. Sometimes she is keen to let us ‘finish off’ – if not we play a game where she decides what animal she is and then visits the ‘dentist’. We then clean her teeth asking her what she’s been eating… A bit like ” hello mrs rabbit, open wide so I can clean your teeth, I can see you’ve been eating lots of carrots and grass today” … So on.
      This works with hair brushing. We ask her how she would like her hair. Then immediately regret it when she asks for
      bird bunches or horse buns. We have to get quite inventive but by allowing her to decide what she wants to be means we get the jobs done with minimum amount of fuss.

  • EDtots 29 June, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    Lovely post. I do struggle with mealtimes. Half the time our EDtot takes a bite of her meal and then just asks for toast. *sigh*

  • Janine Fowler 30 June, 2013 at 8:51 am

    I think I do better with this than most American parents, but I could still work on areas.I do have a tendency to groom my almost-3 year old, which I need to work on, among some other things. Great post!

  • Kate 4 July, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    I would definitely read a whole blog post on the food issue! I find it fascinating.

    I think we’re pretty relaxed with our 2.5 year old, and she’s set her own rhythm. She will generally chose to eat a big breakfast but then tail off as the day goes along, to the point where she might skip dinner altogether and just eat a piece of fruit. I’m sure some people would be appalled and accuse me of sending her to bed hungry. But she would soon let me know if that were the case!

    Great post. One of those ones I show my husband to say ‘See? There are other parents like us out there!’

  • Leslie Kendall Dye 3 December, 2013 at 2:28 am

    I agree with this all! I have a vivid memory of feeling helpless at the dinner table and the anger I felt that I had even to try “one bite” because that was such a violation of my boundaries. Didn’t the adults understand that one bite was a corruption of my taste buds I couldn’t undo?

    Then as a nanny it seemed natural to let them alone as much as possible. A little bit like dating, right? They’ll come to you when they need you, don’t pursue them!

    I also enjoyed the book “The Idle Parent” which dealt with some of these themes. I read it before I was even pregnant and it made me quite excited to think parents could actually do these things.

    I do often have to drag my child to Central Park, but once we are there, she is in heaven and I can’t get her out. I just throw her in the carrier and sing and whisk her until we get there and then plop her down and she runs down the lane without ever looking back. This, to me, is the ultimate sign of success as a parent. In that moment anyway, I’ve no doubt I screw up plenty! 🙂

  • Candice Davey 17 April, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Love this….thank you so much…always post such beautiful and helpful things xxxx needed this today

  • Diana 19 April, 2017 at 1:37 am

    Sooo good! Thank you! I shoul reread it every day 🙂
    I’m curious how old is Ramona?

  • Eliane Sainte-Marie 29 April, 2017 at 4:32 am

    Great article, Lucy! I just added it as a recommended reading for my article Why It’s Critical That You Trust Your Children, where I’m often asked for suggestions on how to develop and encourage independence in children.

    Here’s the link to it if you’re interested: 🙂