If you are a parent of a child between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, you’ve probably noticed that your child has some strong opinions when it comes to receiving help. There’s the “I do it myself” phase, the “I want help… but not like that” phase, and the always popular “I only want my favorite person to help me” phase. (We’re looking at you, Mom!)
To help curb some of the more difficult behaviors that come with the toddler years, The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends giving your children lots of chances to accomplish tasks independently. This includes making sure they have enough time to do them at their own pace. Creating opportunities for autonomy in toddlers can help them feel a little less out of control of their environment and reduce power struggles as they begin to explore boundaries and test the limits of their world.
One simple way to encourage some autonomy and allow your toddler to practice their “do it myself” skills is to have them help with their lunch or snack bag for daycare or preschool. If you have time in your schedule, try making this a routine “job” that your toddler can count on being involved with.
Keep it super simple for very young toddlers by asking them to carry the packed bag to the car or place it inside the diaper bag. With a little guidance, many older toddlers can take over the job of packing their bag themselves. Tasks like this create opportunities for practicing all kinds of skills like decision making, spatial awareness, and fine motor skills. It also gives them a chance to stretch those little independence muscles!
Tips for Packing Lunches with Littles
1. Give Choices
Obviously, you can’t give a two year old free reign in the kitchen. While some blessed parents might have kids who love to eat healthy, most toddlers still need some guidance in their food choices. Try offering choices for each food category. Apple or banana? Crackers or pretzels? Sandwich or a wrap? This way your little one can still be in charge of what goes into their bag, and you can still feel good about the end result.
2. Keep it Simple
Unless you have a particularly artistic tot, they probably won’t be packing themselves Pinterest worthy bento boxes. If the goal is to inspire their independence and encourage autonomy, super simple options might be the way to get started. Keep the things they can choose from, such as juice boxes and pre-packaged snacks, in a place they can reach themselves. Of course, you might have to keep track of things for a while when they first realize they can reach the items themselves!
3. Plan Adequate Time
Watching a toddler learn to do something the first few times is both inspiring and adorable. The tongue out in concentration, the determination to get it right, the effort to try again. But when you’re in a hurry, frustration scan set in for everyone. Getting started long before it’s time to go can help you avoid watching the clock as your determined little one tries to zip up their lunch box for the fourteenth time. If possible, you could even make it a part of the bedtime routine the night before!
4. Have a Backup Plan
Even the best-laid plans can go awry when it comes to letting toddlers do it themselves. It might be a good idea to keep a little stash of grab-and-go items that you can easily grab on those days you’re running late. You can also avoid power struggles by letting your toddler pack their lunch the way they want to, and then filling in the gaps with an extra item or two snuck in after they’ve packed it. Use this tip with caution though, as some observant kids will definitely notice if you “tampered” with their carefully-packed bag.
5. Cheer Them On
No matter what, positive reinforcement can be a valuable tool when it comes to toddlers learning new skills. You know your child best, so you can decide if high-fives, loud cheers, or words of encouragement will help them feel proud of themselves. Keep it low-pressure and cheer on your child whenever they make an effort to practice their independence. It’s also okay if some days they simply aren’t up to it. Even as adults, we have days we would rather let someone else do the dishes or sweep the floor.
6.Consistency and Practice are Key
Toddlers need lots of practice, repetition, and consistency before a new task becomes easier for them. Remember to plan extra time into your getting ready routine if your toddler is going to be helping! Watching your littlest helpers struggle through their first few attempts at something can be painstaking. Try to be patient and let them work it out on their own. With lots of opportunities for independence, consistent practice, and a bit of time, your toddler just might become a snack-packing pro.