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Examples of Autonomy in Toddlers

The "terrible twos" got their name for a reason, and surely it has something to do with autonomy. Although toddlers sometimes get a bad rap for being bossy or sassy, it's normal for children this age to begin asserting their independence. Parenting a toddler requires a delicate balance between encouraging independence and teaching safe and appropriate boundaries.

Motor Skills

Toddlers love to use their developing motor skills to explore everything they can. They're curious creatures who tend to enjoy watching people and feeling anything they can reach. Your toddler's slow pace, coupled with his desire to stop and touch everything, will likely try your patience at times, but it's best to let him explore. "Instead of discouraging them from getting into everything, give them opportunities to explore safely," suggests Kimberly House, a licensed clinical social worker in Lincoln, Maine, who has expertise in child development. A ball, sidewalk chalk, and a nature walk will delight his senses and satisfy his curiosity (at least temporarily). Allow your little detective plenty of time to inspect leaves, investigate caterpillars and examine rocks.

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Verbal Skills

Although it can be frustrating to deal with a toddler's defiance, it's normal for him to use his growing verbal skills to assert himself. Toddlers often enjoy seeing what happens when they say no or when they tell an adult to go or move. "Respond to their opposition calmly but firmly," recommends House. "Provide a warning to give your child a chance to make a good choice. If he still chooses not to do what you say, follow through with a consequence," she says.


Toddlers love to try doing things on their own, especially caring for themselves. They will often say, "I do it!" as adults attempt to help them dress or spread peanut butter on a cracker. When it's safe to do so, allow your child to attempt some tasks on his own. If he struggles, offer to help by saying, "Let's do this together." Give your child simple tasks to do on his own that can make him feel like a big kid. Ask him to carry his dish to the sink, put away his shoes or carry a non-breakable grocery item to make him feel more independent.

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Toddlers aren't known for being adventurous eaters, and they often assert their independence when it comes to food. They may refuse to eat certain textures or entire food groups altogether. Allow your child to feed himself and make the decision when to stop eating. This can help him learn how to recognize his own hunger cues. "Trying to coax a few more bites into him may turn into a battle, and may turn him off to eating," notes Dr. William Sears, pediatrician. Provide meals and snacks at consistent times throughout the day, and if he chooses to skip a meal or a snack, he'll likely eat later.

Temper Tantrums

Toddlers often hold their breath, scream at the top of their lungs and throw themselves down on the ground as a way of communicating that they've got a mind of their own. "Expect tantrums as toddlers begin attempting new tasks and experiencing frustration for the first time," says House. "Validate a child's feelings by saying, 'I know you're mad right now that I said we can't go outside.' Just make sure not to give in to tantrums, or you'll be reinforcing the behavior," she adds. Ignoring or time-out can be effective ways to respond to temper tantrums.

Encouraging Autonomy

Take proactive steps to help your toddler safely venture into the developmental world of independence. "You can support this developmental phase by offering choices," suggests Rachel Rainbolt, the author of Sage Parenting and a parenting educator in San Diego, Calif. "A couple of choices can grant a toddler the autonomy they desire while keeping him cooperative," says Rainbolt. Asking, "Do you want peas with your dinner?" gives your toddler an opportunity to say no. However, if you ask, "Do you want peas or carrots?" there's no real wrong answer as long as you are satisfied with either option.

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