A Daddy Tip for Aiming Toddlers Toward Independence

Hi dfhitkkbin
Readers — Here’s a nice bit of advice from the daddy behind The Diaper Chronicles, Barack Levin. First, his biography, then his tips!

I was born in 1970 in Tel Aviv, Israel and moved to Pittsburgh in 1996 to pursue my master’s degree. Shortly after my arrival I met a beautiful French woman named Michelle and fell in love. A year later, during a routine physical, I learned I had an irreversible and life-threatening kidney disease. I was 26 years old, and the doctor doubted that I’d see 30. In the face of this news, I refused to give up my dream of marrying Michelle and raising a multi-national family in the US.

Thirteen years later, I am still alive and reside in Atlanta. I am living on borrowed time, and despite everyone I knew telling me I was crazy, I decided to become a stay/work-at-home dad and shoulder most of the responsibility of caring for my son for his first year of life (and, potentially, the last twelve months of mine). I wanted to offer him proper guidance, using some very unconventional methods, through the first steps of his journey to becoming a fantastic kid and a great man—a journey I feared I might not be around to witness much of.

So here’s his tip for getting your kid to carry his own weight: 

One Easy First Lesson Toward Raising Independent, Happy Children

Once I saw a 3-year old and his mother going to daycare.  It was winter time, and the mom was loaded down, carrying her son, his bag, a rain coat, an umbrella and a stuffed toy. That simple picture made me sad for both child and parent. It was not raining, so the mom had no reason to carry the child and his entourage. I decided then and there it would be different with my child.

In my opinion, the key to raising independent kids is to teach them responsibility and accountability. Obviously, you can’t go up to a two-year-old and say, “Listen, Alex, today you will be responsible for cleaning your room and if not,  you will be held accountable!” So instead, I am taking small daily actions that teach him these values.  I came up with the following little nifty trick for toddlers. It worked for me:

Step 1: For a week, start to show your toddler that mommy and daddy carry their own bags, purse, or wallet to work, to the store, etc.  Let your little one check the bag contents. Each day,  ask your toddler to help you by putting in or taking out an item. Compliment him. He will  be supercharged with excitement because he is “helping” you.

Step 2: At the end of the week, start showing your little one that big kids from his daycare and friends or relatives carry their own bags. Wouldn’t he like to have one, too?

Step 3: Get the bag! Take him to Wal-Mart or Target and let him choose.

Step 4: Back home, ask him to bring his favorite items and place them somewhere he can easily reach. Now ask: “What would you like to put in your new bag?” He’ll run to get it! Once the items are inside, let him walk around proudly with his brand new bag.

Step 5: Leave the bag close to the door so that every time you leave the house, there it is, reminding him to take it. You and your little one may be forgetful at first, but within two to three days it will become second nature for him to take the bag with him. Best of all: You can “hitchhike” by putting in the rest of his items: diapers, food and more.

Just think how this one simple habit will make life so much easier for your child — and you! I’d be so happy if the rest of you parents shared your stories and advice about helping our children become happily independent kids.  You may send your stories and comments to me via my site: baracklevin.com

Barack Levin is author of the book “The Diaper Chronicles – A stay at home dad’s quest for raising great kids,” available through his website. And by the way, we here at Free-Range Kids love tips on making kids responsible and independent,  too.






28 Responses to A Daddy Tip for Aiming Toddlers Toward Independence

  1. Kari September 11, 2009 at 8:39 pm #

    Good ideas. Of course, maybe said child being carried had special needs and needed to be carried. Mine look totally normal, but have to be carried a lot due to “invisible” disabilities. But on that one, I will digress. I am just very careful about being concerned about other people’s choices in parenting without knowing the full story.

  2. AirborneVet September 11, 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    My 3-yr old LOVES to get his diaper bag out of the closet. Of course, it also carries snacks, my wallet and some toys. When he asks if we are leaving the house, I tell him, “Yes! Want to go ge the bag?” To which he always happily runs to the closet and drags it out and then, since it is heavy, he ‘helps’ me carry it. 🙂

  3. Nicole September 11, 2009 at 9:25 pm #

    @Kari – it’s not so much that he was judging her in particular, more using that as a little anecdote to illustrate a bigger issue. It’s safe to say that MANY parents carry their children when they are 100% capable of walking on their own – or do a million other things for their kids when their kids can do it or could learn to do it. And I agree, we have to be careful in our everyday life not to jump to conclusions about others too quickly. I hope people see that anecdote as a lesson about how they can change their interactions with their own kids, not worry about what others do.

  4. adhd librarian September 11, 2009 at 9:33 pm #

    Sometimes I read things and I need to stop and laugh at the human race.

    My kids carry their own bags, but there was no process involved in getting them to do it.

    well, no process more complex than saying “get your bag, we’re going”
    Are people in modern society so pathetic that they need instructions and a 12 step program to get a kid to carry their own stuff?

  5. pentamom September 11, 2009 at 9:44 pm #

    adhd librarian, I mostly agree with you, but if you’ve raised the kid up to now in an atmosphere where neither he nor any of the people around him that look like him (i.e. other little kids) are expected to do those things, it might take a little instruction. Probably not as complicated as what Mr. Levin outlines, but maybe not as simple as just telling him to do something that he’s been conditioned to believe that people like him just CAN’T do.

    So, better to start with your method (as I did) but if you go down the other path and decide things need to change, maybe a little more gradual approach would make it easier for the child to swallow. You can probably skip steps 1 and 2 in any case, and just say, “Come on, we’re going to get you your OWN bag” and go from there.

  6. Uly September 11, 2009 at 10:23 pm #

    Orrrrr, crazy idea, you can do it like this.

    Every time we go shopping, we bring our own bags. When the kid is old enough to carry her own bag (which, for Evangeline, was hilariously when she was STILL ON MY BACK, but that wasn’t the point! I wore her for the snuggles) you pass them a bag when you leave. When you go out, you fill their backpack with their supplies and have them carry it. Start when they’re two and you’ll never have to do it another way.

  7. Leah Weiss Caruso September 11, 2009 at 10:51 pm #

    I think however you choose to approach it, teaching responsibility is important. Kudos to Barak and everyone else!

  8. RayD September 11, 2009 at 10:56 pm #

    This made me laugh. I agree with Uly and adhd librabrian, I don’t think it needs to be this complex. To me guides like this are part of the problem, parents seem to feel they need to be told how to do basic stuff using a list of approved instructions.

    Barack Levin sounds like a nice enough, fairly sensible guy but at the end of the day he probably came up with this to sell books. Did he really have to spend a week pointing out to his toddler “that mommy and daddy carry their own bags”?

    Just use your common sense. If you start with your child at toddler age and expect them to carry their own stuff then, with the majority of kids, they will do it just because they like helping Mommy/Daddy. Then by the time they don’t like helping anymore they’ll be used to carrying their own stuff and won’t think twice.

  9. pentamom September 11, 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    I agree it’s mostly common sense. But I have a kid who, though I expect him to “carry his weight” in appropriate ways, will look at me as though I have two heads if I ask him to do something that he wasn’t previously able to do, or thinks he can’t do. Some kids love thinking they’re “big enough” to do this or that — this ain’t one of them. It’s more change-resistance, than incapacity, of course. So some require a little more hand-holding than others on stuff like this. I don’t make a big deal out of it, I just inform him that “yes he certainly can” manage this, and he does. But not all kids seamlessly respond to new responsibilities, even small ones, without some encouragement.

    But yes, as I said above, spending a week showing a child that people carry bags is past reason. I agree with Leah that Mr. Levin’s to be commended for at least having the right idea here, but I also agree with those who think that he’s off the mark in thinking things are really so complex, and is contributing to the helplessness syndrome that seems to infect modern parents (and makes tons of money for book and magazine publishers!)

  10. Jennifer September 11, 2009 at 11:08 pm #

    Add me to the list of people who think this is well intentioned, but much too complicated.

    Once the kids could walk, we told them if they wanted to bring something, they had to carry it. End of discussion and no involved process.

  11. Meagan September 11, 2009 at 11:37 pm #

    I read somewhere (it might have been this blog, I don’t remember) that part of the reason some parent are becoming helicopter parents is because there were fewer large families when THEY were kids. Back in the day children would be surrounded by, and partially responsible for, younger sibblings and cousins. Without that, they grow into adults and become parents without any experience of what to do.

    I don’t know if that’s true, it seems a bit too neat to me, but it is true that there is a lot more conversation about the “right” way to parent. One consequence of the Internet is that everything you do can seem wrong, because the most vocal are always those who oppose something.

    Whatever the reason, parents can feel helpless. They can be raising a baby and then suddenly realize they’re babying a child. I see nothing wrong with some helpful tips to get back on the path you want to be on. Obviously this “guide” isn’t for people whose children already carry their bags. That doesn’t mean it’s useless, or deserving of scorn.

  12. dahozho September 12, 2009 at 12:30 am #

    Some little people don’t need instructions. My 17.5 mos son *loves* to carry or drag his backpack all by himself. He already knows Ima takes a bag, and also likes to make sure he has his “keys” (toy ones, but he knows what they’re supposed to do). He looks so cute with the empty pack over his shoulders and so you only see his head and his feet from the back!

    I never conciously encouraged this, but he’s got it down already. Playing “bye-bye” is one of his favorite games, along with talking on the “phone” (an old dvd remote with batteries removed). He’s made a box from a wall clock into his rolling bag. Yeah, he’s a traveller! I just love to see his imagination at work, and then when its really time to get going, he’s ready!

    (Oh yes, he does get carried into daycare/car. He’s not old enough to understand about parking lots/cars and doesn’t hold hands consistently enough. He is also literally falling-down tired at the end of the day. Give him a couple more months, and he’ll be walking in the nursery school door himself. (our building parking lot is another matter)

  13. Holly September 12, 2009 at 7:33 am #

    I “make” my almost two year old carry my lunch bag up the stairs on the way home every day. She’s got to do something to earn her keep! lol

  14. Sierra September 12, 2009 at 8:31 am #

    What a cute story. I’m another mom who has a hard time getting my toddler to let me carry a bag – she always wants to carry our things, even if they are too heavy or fragile for her to manage safely.

    I do get a lot of surprised comments about how competent my kids are. They have fed themselves, dressed themselves, carried their things, and generally solved a lot of their own problems since they were babies. Why? I am a slacker mom who cannot be bothered to solve every little problem for them. You don’t like your pants – go change! You want something else to eat – make it yourself!

    Somehow they’ve grown into polite, competent little people. Maybe more of us should slack off a little.

  15. MaeMae September 12, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    In defense of the author, common sense is not so common anymore. I think this would be a great jumping off point for some people that view children as helpess little beings and maybe didn’t think there was any other way to treat them. I am sitting here picturing all these celebrities that have 4 and 5yo’s in slings on their hips. Unfortuantely, we live in a society where if Angelina Jolie thinks that you should carry a 4yo then it must be right. That is why this blog is so important and ones like the one above. Different things will grab people in and stick with them and as long as the end goal of children being more independent is achieved then why care how it gets done?

  16. Uly September 12, 2009 at 3:03 pm #

    LOL, MaeMae, you haven’t lived until you’ve worn a big kid (although I wouldn’t use a ring sling for a four year old, I’d use a wrap). It’s not because my nieces can’t walk (they regularly walk the 3/4 of a mile from here to the SI Ferry and back, or the 1.6 miles in Manhattan from the north end of BPC to the boat), just that I like to get my snuggles where I can. It’s no different from people who use strollers for big kids except that you get hugged at the same time.

  17. Bethany September 12, 2009 at 3:16 pm #

    There we go, judging other people’s parenting… People with adopted children carry them more than biological children due to attachment, not due to dependence/independence.

  18. sylvia_rachel September 13, 2009 at 12:05 am #

    I agree that it seems a little elaborate, when you can accomplish the same goal by just consistently saying to your kids “You want to bring that? No problem! You carry it”; but if one genuinely thought one’s four-year-old was too young to carry its own backpack, it might be just what one needed to overcome that attitude.

    OTOH, I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with carrying a bigger kid — a three- or four-year-old, say. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes? Why on earth not?

  19. MaeMae September 13, 2009 at 2:46 am #

    Sorry everybody. I wasn’t trying to say that you should never, ever carry a 4 year old in any circumstance. I was merely using that scenario as example that some people may need a little guidance and need to see other people doing something before they give it a try.

  20. KW September 13, 2009 at 6:05 am #

    I thought the article was lovely and enjoyed reading the steps the author gave. Certainly, many of the parents reading this blog may find it too complicated and over explained. But then we aren’t the average mainstream parents, are we!

    I remember a few years ago when a dear friend was 8 months pregnant with her twins, she had her then 1 and 3yo dangling off her hips all the time as she struggled to carry both of them at the same time because they “wanted up”. This was not because she is super mom. She was racked with back pain, was having tons of contractions, and struggled mightily with doing this. But she did it because she thought she had to because this is what good moms do. Her children do not have any hidden or visible disabilities. There is no larger motivation than perhaps some misplaced guilt on her part.

    A book by this author may be just the thing that helps her see the light! She would need to have the suggestions on how to build up to this step by step because this kind of parenting does not come naturally to her at all. And sadly, it doesn’t come naturally to tons of parents anymore.

  21. peaceful guide September 13, 2009 at 6:26 am #

    How lovely, but I’m amazed that we even have to go through all those charades and hoopla to get a child to carry a bag. Do we expect NOTHING from our children these days?

    I work with children who are not yet 3 yrs old, and have seen them do things that to me are run-of-the-mill but to parents are mind-boggling (putting one thing away before playing with another one, standing in line, setting up and cleaning up their lunch, using a real glass, plate, and silverware, pouring water from a glass pitcher, putting on/taking off their shoes, using the bathroom with no assistance, dressing themselves… The list is endless). Why are they able to achieve “wonderful” things in my classroom, but be completely INCOMPETENT at home? Because I expect wonderful things from them and I trust their abilities.

    If the child is dependent and clingy, it is NOT because of the child’s personality but because of how the parents raised him/her.

  22. bequirox September 13, 2009 at 6:30 pm #

    How I’m raising an independent child:
    My daughter is one year old. My husband and I give her frequent “private imagination time” and have done so since she was born (we would put her on a play pad and leave the room, etc. Now we just go about our business and if she wants to follow, she can, but she also can play with her toys or pull the DVD’s off the bookcase if she chooses.) Since she was old enough to hold things, she’s been holding her own toys while I carried her to the car or whatever. She holds the fresh diaper while I take off the dirty one. I brush her teeth, then she takes a turn. I cut up her sandwich in bite-sized pieces, put it on a plate, then leave the room while she eats. If I’m feeding her something with silverware, she holds her own cup so she can get a drink when she’s ready. She picks her own clothes (I hold a few outfits in front of her, and she picks the one she likes best) she picks the toys we play with, which books we read, and chooses the activity when we’re playing in the yard. I also hold her accountable for her actions. She has started spitting out her milk when she drinks it, so I tell her, “Here is your milk. If you spit it out, you don’t get anymore.” When she spits it out, I take it away. No empty threats here!
    I never even thought of this as teaching her to be independent before. YEAH ME!

  23. Stefan September 13, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    A nice sequence, though I think we’ll get to skip at least with our daughter who is somehow already at 13 mo’s obsessed with the accesories: http://dadtoday.blogspot.com/2009/08/accessorize.html

  24. Meika September 14, 2009 at 5:02 am #

    Thanks for bringing this article to us, Lenore – I appreciate the content if not all the grumpy comments. I wouldn’t’ve thought to explicitly model to my daughter the process of bringing the things we need with us, but can imagine how helpful that might be to her. Many thanks to Mr. Levin, as well.

  25. LoopyLoo September 14, 2009 at 5:58 am #

    “If the child is dependent and clingy, it is NOT because of the child’s personality but because of how the parents raised him/her.”

    How anyone can spit out that sort of generalization with absolute certainty just boggles me. So you don’t think children have their own personalities, temperaments, and challenges? It all just comes down to parenting and who did things “right”? Hmmm, that sounds sort of familiar… like something one would read at any attachment parenting site.

  26. Catherine September 14, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    I usually make my children carry their own bags. I remember when my daughter was in first grade and I arranged to pick up a friend of hers from school to take back to our place for a play. This little girl (6 years old) came out of class and just dropped her bag on the ground in front of me expecting me to carry it for her. I had to call her back to come and get it as I was pushing my baby in a stroller at the time (and also because I thought it was pretty obnoxious behaviour). I then noticed that quite a few parents did carry their 6yo’s bags for them even while struggling with younger children.

  27. Resh September 14, 2009 at 12:27 pm #

    Mostly commonsense & patience.
    My 4 year old has his own bag, had one since he was 3. Left it behind just once on the bus. Yet when he started school , in 10 days has left behind his hats 5 times, lunch box 3 times, bottle twice.

    My 7 year old daughter, has a purse when we go out, with something to keep her busy @ restaurants, waiting for the bus ( nothing with batteries except her phone)Never has left it behind, yet needs constant reminders to take library books back, homework(loves to do it)…..
    My take on this is:-
    Everyone takes a different speed up the learning curve. Judge not. Learn from other’

  28. Sara September 16, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

    my two year old can, and totally does sometimes, carry herself, her pooh bear, and her backpack to daycare. However, she’s such a daddy’s girl, that this is sometimes the only part of the day that I get to hold her and get hugs and kisses, and I totally take advantage of it. So if you see a lady carrying a 2 year old, her pooh, and her backpack, it might just be for extra snuggles and not to stifle her independence. 🙂