Independence day

Living with your toddler’s growing assertiveness can be a challenge,


When Alison’s toddler Ollie hit 2½, he developed a worrying habit. When they were out, he no longer liked to hold hands. If Alison insisted, Ollie would become distraught. But free of the constraints of his mum, he would dash ahead into the road – not even registering her desperate ‘Stop!’

Child experts Dr William and Martha Sears’ son Tom used to do exactly the same thing. The acclaimed authors of The Good Behaviour Book knew they had to act before it caused an accident. So they devised a simple learning game called Rewind. Martha walked to the edge of the pavement holding Tom’s hand and stopped, looked for traffic and listened, then said, ‘Rewind!’ They repeated the procedure backwards and forwards 25 times, teaching him the importance of stopping at the pavement. Tom loved it and never forgot again. His parents realised Tom wasn’t being deliberately naughty – it was simply that road safety wasn’t his priority.


Toddlers become more independent at around 18 months old, marking the transition from baby to child. This stage is important – how they manage the change can have a lifelong effect. Dr Sears says, ‘To help a child develop independence, parents and carers need to help him or her learn how to do things rather than doing it for them.’

Every child develops at its own pace. One of the first things you may notice is improved dexterity. Suddenly your child can get dressed, use building blocks and open a jam jar. You want to encourage her new fascination with the world but you don’t want her to hurt herself in the process. Getting dressed on her own is good. But playing with the knife drawer is dangerous and not letting you help her brush her teeth could lead to tooth decay. It’s no wonder this stage can cause frustration on both sides.

According to William and Martha Sears there are several techniques you can use to manage, divert and even avoid the resulting conflict. Dr Sears advises that you begin by realising that ‘interdependence’, is a more useful term than independence, meaning children learn to do things for themselves, but they also learn to use adults and friends to help them do things better. Interdependence is a skill that will help them throughout their lives.

Choice is important, too. ‘Your child may not be willing to accept your agenda over his without a protest. Giving him a choice makes compliance easier,’ says Dr Sears. ‘After saying “No”, quickly offer another idea before he can protest. By offering analternative you’ll catch him by surprise and preserve his sense of curiosity and adventure.’

But remember that too many choices can be overwhelming. For a younger toddler limit the choices to two.

Understanding that with choice comes responsibility and that you must accept the consequences is another life lesson. ‘This ties in with helping your child take responsibility for his actions,’ says Dr Sears. ‘If you ask him to be careful with his juice and he spills it, don’t give him more.’

Also, try using alternatives to the word ‘No’. If she hears it too often she will turn it on you and say no to all of your requests. Find other words, like hurt, yucky, ouch, dirty and stop. Save ‘No’ for the big issues.

On the occasions when you fail to stop or divert the frustration try to remain calm. ‘Try not to lose control with your child,’ says Dr Sears. ‘Be the secure and trustworthy adult who is in charge. Anger frightens your child and can encourage him to set you off again to see the fireworks. You need to keep your position of leadership.’

In their experience, William and Martha Sears have found that parents often confuse being in charge with being in control. ‘Think of your job as shaping your child’s behaviour rather than controlling it,’ says Dr Sears. ‘Shaping means you take your child’s temperament and needs into consideration when making decisions. This makes your authority work for you – it doesn’t mean you’re giving in.’

Stubbornness is normal, but it passes. A toddler who is always angry, has difficulty making eye contact and is not comfortable being held are all red flags that there may be underlying behaviour problems. If you are concerned, seek professional help.

Try to remember that toddlers’ busy minds race along at a different pace and to a different agenda from our own. They are so absorbed in the activity they are doing that they forget something you have told them a thousand times. The Rewind game will prompt your child and help them to remember. Reminders are non-controlling and therefore do not set up a battle of wills. They allow your child to decide, after a prompt, to do the thing that pleases you both the most. Then you can both feel good. 

Fiona MacDonald-Smith reveals how she stopped saying ‘No’ to daughter Emily, 21 months.

‘Emily is very sporty and adventurous – I blame it on her hardy Yorkshire genes. She’s always been independent, but at 18 months she suddenly insisted on feeding herself, getting into the highchair and buggy on her own, and getting dressed without my help.

‘Emily is always taking risks – jumping on the changing table, climbing onto chairs and tipping them over, and refusing to hold my hand when crossing the road. But when it’s something really dangerous I do put my foot down.

‘As she got older I found I was saying “No” lots, so I took a friend’s advice and now say “No” only when it warrants it. I save it for serious things, like if she’s about to touch the oven or the washing machine. Now she does what I say and I realise that things I said no to before are actually okay for her to do. Also, I was the world’s most unadventurous child, and I don’t want to squash Emily’s free spirit.

‘It just means I have to bite my lip when she’s on huge climbing frames, and keep near enough, and alert enough, to catch her if necessary. I now have lightning reflexes I never had before, so in a way she’s made me sporty, too!’

What real mums say…

‘Freddy has just started to insist on wiping his own bottom, and of course, at 2½ years old, he’s really not quite up to the job. So we’ve managed to reach a compromise. I start it, and he can finish off.’

Denise Nathenson, has one son, Freddy, 2½

‘Cleaning Olivia’s teeth was a nightmare. “Me do it myself,” she’d insist, and then proceed to suck the toothbrush. Then my mum, bless her, showed Olivia her fillings and explained that unless her teeth were cleaned properly she’d get black teeth like Grandma’s. Now if she plays up, I just mention Grandma’s black teeth. It works every time!’

Sally Groocock, has two children, Olivia, 2, and Sam, 6 weeks

‘I do get frustrated when Misha won’t hold my hand. Apart from anything else, it’s dangerous. But I had to laugh when the other day, she took her hand out of mine and said, “I’ll hold my own hand,” and then toddled down the street with her hands clasped in front of her.’

Amanda Coakley, has two children, Zac, 5, and Misha, 3

Good ‘how to’ books

The Fussy Baby Book

Advice to see you through from birth to 5 years old. By Dr William and Martha Sears (£9.99, HarperThorsons).

The Good Behaviour Book


How to have a better-behaved child from birth to age 10. By Dr William and Martha Sears (£9.99, HarperThorsons).

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