Toddlers and preschoolers see their grown-ups and older siblings doing everything so easily. It can be frustrating and discouraging for these little ones to try and try, and not be able to do what they see everyone else doing. Knowing that self-esteem can come from being competent at something, there are several ways we can empower our toddlers and preschoolers and give them opportunities to feel capable and competent:
Let them do things for themselves.
Sometimes it’s hard for a parent not to step in and quickly do something a child is trying to do. Especially if the child is taking a long time to, say, figure out how all of the chalk pieces will go back into the box. (Sometimes I want to pull my hair out when I’m watching my own four-year-old meticulously try to fix the Velcro fastener on the back of his hat so that it’s “not too tight and not too loosed.”) But our kids need these experiences, and by letting them complete tasks by themselves, we not only give them chances to learn the lessons associated with that task, but to find out how much they can do on their own. And that’s power.
Let them struggle.
As parents, we love seeing our kids succeed, and it’s often difficult to watch them struggle. But resist the temptation to rescue your child when she’s having a hard time with a task. Give her opportunities to face problems and solve them themselves. Think about the kind of lesson a child learns when she keeps working on a challenge and figures it out! She learns that she doesn’t have to give up, and that tolerating a bit of frustration allows her to reach a goal. Of course we don’t want our children to have so much frustration that it’s overwhelming to them, but a little bit of it builds resilience. Then, when you see that it’s necessary to step in and help out, try to do so without taking over. Just give a little nudge – “Looks like that piece might go in this area of the puzzle” – rather than solving the problem for them. When kids are NOT given opportunities to struggle and then succeed, they’ll feel powerless when difficult situations arise.
Ask for their help.
Almost nothing feels better to a two- to four-year-old than being asked for their assistance. “Can you help mommy put this lid on? I can’t seem to get it on.” Or “Would you help me decide about where we should eat? Outside? Or at the dinner table?” Or give them a job that lets them really help: “Will you put the napkins on the table?” Simply by making kids feel like they’re contributing to whatever’s going on around them, you can help them see that they are capable of pitching in, helping, and making decisions.
Play the boob.
This phrase belongs to renowned pediatrician Harvey Karp. He talks about playing the boob with young children, where we are purposefully incompetent so that they can jump in and help. We might say something like, “I don’t know where this puzzle piece goes. Hmmm.” Or, we can let them observe us struggling with something that they can easily accomplish, like stacking blocks. Stepping in to help rescue a seemingly inept adult can help children feel strong, and show them that they have the power to master tasks set before them.
Not only can young kids handle some responsibility, but it’s great for them. Try to elicit their help or opinion at least once a day so they feel like they’re a contributing member of the family, and that their abilities are important. This will reduce their frustration while also building both competence and confidence.