“Meeee! Do iiiiit! OWWWNNN!” This was the voice of my one-year-old son as he adamantly refused help from my husband in unloading silverware from the dishwasher. It had become pretty clear that our little man had entered the age of autonomy. He knew what he could do himself and was absolutely going to do it himself!
Around age 1-2, children begin to develop a sense of capability and competence. They are aware of things they are able to do and decisions they can make for themselves, and they aim to “take charge” of their lives every day. The development of automoy is internally driven; it arises naturally and never goes away. A sense of autonomy is a basic human need at any age. We need to know that we are capable and that we have power in our own lives.
This can become tricky for young children. They, too, have a need for autonomy and to be able to exert power over their lives, but this often becomes overshadowed by our well-meaning and necessary efforts to navigate each day. Most tasks, most days, it’s just easier if we “do it own.” But this is what gives rise to defiance, power struggles, and the ever-popular, “NO!” from our children. This kind of belligerent behavior is an indication that kids are feeling powerless or helpless and have a need for more autonomy. When kids can have an ongoing sense of “I am capable; I can take charge of me,” they are much less likely to try to prove this by challenging a parent at every opportunity.
To help with this with our own kids, when they were about 1 and 2 years old, my husband and I designated a cabinet in the kitchen to be just for them. We filled it with some things they would need to help themselves on a regular basis and gain that much-needed sense of autonomy in the kitchen. The contents haven’t changed much over the last few years:
Here’s a closer look at what’s in there:
- Bowls. Necessary for getting their own cereal or a snack from the pantry. We keep a variety of styles and sizes of bowls that can be used for other things, too, like painting or for using outside. I love bamboo ones because they are unbreakable and technically “disposable” (biodegradable/ recyclable) but sturdy enough to last through several washings. I bought the ones here for less than a dollar a few years ago, and they still work just fine!
- Sports/ sippy/ travel cups. Always helpful when you’re out and about with kids, but it’s nice for “traveling” around the house, too. When kids are playing in another room and want to bring a drink in there, they can choose and fill one of their cups-with-lids. Just find a top that is easiest for your kids to attach and stock up on a few of those.
- Glasses. Probably the most used part of the kids’ cabinet. It is so nice for kids to be able to get their own drink whenever they want! We also have a stool in the kitchen that is easy to slide to the sink or to the fridge door to get water. We use short, wide glasses because they’re heavy and sturdy enough not to tip easily, and our kids like the feel of using a “real” glass. We mix and match some fun colors and styles from IKEA (also very inexpensive).
- Straws. Bendy, silly, crazy, or straight…straws are a fun addition to the self-serve process!
- Rags and towels. Probably the most important part of the kids’ cabinet! With kids and DIY kitchen tasks comes spills. It’ll happen and it’s OK. Spills are great opportunities for learning that mistakes are OK. Just teach them where the rags are and how to clean up a spill. It’s funny…no matter where we may be in the house, my kids will run to their kitchen cabinet to get a rag for a spill because they KNOW they’re there. We may have towels in the same room we’re in, but this has become their go-to spot! So, have a thick supply of easy-to-reach cloths available for kids to clean up after themselves…wherever they may be.
- Plates. A few plates are helpful for getting snacks or making painting palates. We like fun, colorful ones for the kids’ cabinet.
Also keep in mind that this cabinet is useless if kids aren’t able to access the food and drink they’re looking for. S0 along with creating this kind of self-serve space, consider these other essentials for a kid-friendly kitchen:
Find a height-appropriate place to store snacks to which you’re OK with your kids helping themselves. For us, it’s fruit, vegetables, cheese sticks, jam for their toast, dip, dressing, and condiments (for…well, everything it seems!), and milk. I used to keep our milk on the very top shelf of the fridge only because that’s where I had always been accustomed to reaching for it. But I’ve since moved it to the lower shelf so my children can pour their own milk at mealtimes. I keep the juice up high because I prefer to decide when they get juice to drink.
Designate one child-high shelf for kids’ pantry snacks. Ours is at their eye level so they can easily see what is available.
We also have an air popper on this shelf because they love to make their own popcorn for a snack!
You can see the jars have labels…this was their idea and a great way to add even more ownership to their shelf. They enjoyed using our label maker to identify their snacks…things like…
Having your children’s snacks and supplies doesn’t necessarily mean they will be snacking 24/7. It just means that when it is time for a snack or when they want something to drink, they are able to help themselves.
What if you don’t have a lot of space in your kitchen and pretty much need all of your cabinet space for storage? See what you can consolidate and possibly make room on just one shelf in one cabinet for their essential supplies. Any small space that’s “Their Own” will help give kids a sense of confidence and personal power in the kitchen, which will carry over into other areas of their lives. For limited space, narrow it down to the bare necessities: cups and rags. Kids at least need to be able to get themselves a drink without asking, and they need to be able to clean that drink up if it ends up on the floor. Any more than items that is beneficial, but that’s a great place to start.
Autonomy begins early in life, and strengthens only with opportunity. Adapting your kitchen to be kid-friendly is one way to give children that opportunity to feel confident and capable–to demonstrate that they can, indeed, “do it own!”
This week I gave a presenation for a symposium of childcare workers. It was wonderful to see so many people who work with young children show their care and love for their students! After the talk, one attendee approached me with a question. She prompted it by saying, “I know you were talking about what teachers should do in their classrooms–how they can communicate better with students–but I’m not a teacher…I run a daycare out of my home and I take care of just a few kids. But I was just wondering…” At which point she started to proceed with her question.
At which point I gently interrupted saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute…you ARE a teacher!” She responded by saying that she did not go to school for teaching and was not a licensed educator.
I asked her, “Do you have children in your care each day?” Yes. “Do you interact with them regularly?” Yes. “Then you are a teacher. The children in your care are learning from you. And don’t worry about your official title, because children learn more from those who take care of them and interact regularly with them than they do from anyone who is simply their ‘licensed educator’.”
- Children learn from those who engage with them–giving eye contact, smiles, handshakes, and hugs.
- Children learn from those to whom they feel a similarity–a feeling of being alike or being the same.
- Children learn from those whom they feel are on their team–someone who is on their side, advocating for them.
- Children learn from those to whom they feel significant–a sense of belonging in the relationship.
- Children learn from those who exude love--when gestures of affection come from the heart.
- Children will learn from those who know them–a deep level of trust and connection.
This is true for anyone who is in regular contact and communication with children. You may not be planning lessons, projects, and homework assignments for them, but kids who interact with you are learning from you. You may not have a specific classroom, but instead any room in which you are present: this is where learning occurs. You may not be teaching derivatives, latin roots, or Mendel’s dihybrid cross, but every day, every interaction you are teaching the children in your care things they need to know to be successful in life.
- “I am important. I matter in this environment and in this relationship.”
- “I am nourished. I am getting what I need to grow.”
- “I am capable. I can handle challenges and recover from failures.”
- “I am autonomous. I have power over my choices and actions.”
- “I am safe. I will not be harmed.”
- “I am accepted. My feelings are normal, and my behavior is forgivable.”
These are the things they learn from you, their teacher, no matter what official title you may have. So if you think you’re not a child’s teacher, think again. You are. We all are. Children learn from the adults in their lives how to engage with the world, where they fit in, and the tremendous range of capabilities they possess. Academics aside, what lessons will you teach today?
Taking time today to celebrate the occasion (motherhood), but also reflecting on the past (pre-motherhood–what that was like!) and looking ahead to what’s yet to come. May the future bring us more of the little moments of parenthood that make today so great. Little moments, lots of love, and a lifetime of gratitude for these two kiddos that make me a mom.