Raising an independent kid
May 26, 2010 8:03 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my toddler get better at amusing herself?

My adorable daughter is 14 months old, at the very beginning of toddlerhood. I'm lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time with her, and I love it. She also enjoys spending time with me... perhaps a bit too much?

During the day, she'll play for perhaps 5-10 minutes by herself before crawling over to see what I'm doing/hang on me/get all up in whatever possibly-dangerous business I'm accomplishing. If she's in her play yard, it's 5-10 minutes before she's hanging on the rail, wailing (angrily, not in distress) for attention. My husband swears that she plays perfectly contentedly alone when she's with him, and asserts that I've conditioned her to be needy around me by responding too readily to her demands. If this is the case, then I'd really like to start un-conditioning her, so she can begin developing the ability to amuse herself. I can certainly understand the appeal for a baby of 24/7 cheering and attention from Mom, but I really don't want to raise one of those kids who needs someone else around constantly. I myself have always found it a huge relief to have the internal resources to be happy alone for almost any amount of time, and that's an option I'd like my daughter to have as well.

So tl;dr-- wanting to start setting some healthy boundaries in the area of time/attention. She's my first, though, so I don't really have a good barometer for what's reasonable to expect from a baby this age, and I obviously don't want to shirk my parenting duties or demand more independence of her than is healthy or natural. Two questions, then:

1. For how long at a stretch is it reasonable to expect a ~1-2-year old to play independently (assuming a parent is present, but not directly involved in the game)? For instance, my mom claims that at that age I used to play happily for an hour or so at a time in my playpen while she graded papers nearby. Realistic?

2. Any general tips or techniques for setting limits and encouraging solo play at this age and beyond?
posted by Bardolph to Human Relations (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
She also enjoys spending time with me... perhaps a bit too much?

I hung on my mother like a scarf. Wherever she went, I wanted to go. If she wants you or needs you, don't reject her.

I still remembered how much I loved my mother and how I was so attached to her that it would have hurt to be rejected by her. To not have had her attention would have horrible.

I'm pretty sure all toddlers are different in their needs.
posted by anniecat at 8:17 AM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

My older son did not stop bugging me for constant entertainment, or inventing trouble to get into (did you know a plastic truck can be used to make a permanent drawing on the wall?), until he got old enough to start reading for fun, which was considerably later than the point at which he first learned to read. It's not because I raised him to be that way, it's just his basic nature (he turned out later to have ADD). Some kids are a lot more willing to play alone than others are. Some kids are happy in a playpen, while others find it to be nothing but torture, and their screaming makes it torture for the parent, as well.

I know you're not supposed to let young children watch TV, but I had to have something so I could get enough time alone to just load the dishwasher. When he was a toddler, I relied on really good videos by Fred Levine, such as "Road Construction Ahead" and 'Where the Garbage Goes". That half an hour of peace was absolutely essential at times, when there was no other way to get it and I was desperate.
posted by Ery at 8:20 AM on May 26, 2010

I disagree that finding ways for your child to play on their own is "rejection." Children can be trained, as you suggest your husband has trained your child to interact differently with him than with you.

My kids have all been very clingy at that age, and also more with me than with their dad (I'm also a SAHM, and I think that's precisely the reason why). One thing that's worked is to find an area for them to play where I'm working nearby. If they get bored, we move to a new area, I engage him in something new to play with, and I just find a new chore (in my house, there's plenty of mess to work on ;P ). I also talk to my kids constantly, even when they were just toddlers and that helps them feel constantly included and like you're still "playing."

One boundary that we did set that might be similar for you is when my husband and I were both available, but I was doing something that was harder with the toddler (usually cooking), we were very strict about the toddler doing something with their dad, even though he'd usually crawl in and try to find me and even if my husband had to be more engaging than he usually was.

I agree, though, at some level this is a reflection of personality and something that just has to be gotten through (even 3 months from now it'll be much better). And as they age, it'll also manifest itself as positive personality traits.
posted by artifarce at 8:34 AM on May 26, 2010

You raise an independent child by meeting needs. Babies, toddlers, preschoolers, children need their mothers. At this age she needs to be with with you, or an attentive loving caregiver, the majority of her waking time. Her behavior is completely normal. Tending to needs and playing with her fosters independence, confidence, and security. Children that are left to "play solo" when all they really want their mother's attention become dependent and insecure. It doesn't sound like you would ignore your child, or her bids for attention, but your husband's choice of words worry me. You're not conditioning your child to be dependent -- you're being loving and doing what comes naturally. Keep doing that.

Read this if you're interested:

I agree that all children are different. At age 1 or 2 I put my kids in their highchair while I was cooking or wore them in a sling while I did chores, or carried them around with me room to room. I never put them in a playpen. I have no opinion on playpens or play yards, I just never used them. Make your house safe where she can crawl around. If she demands attention, play a quick game with her, give her some cuddles and love, talk with her and go about your business. Talk her through what you are doing and include her as much as possible. If she is no distress you don't have to drop everything, but don't expect her to play for stretches of time alone at this age. Keep doing what comes naturally and good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 8:40 AM on May 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

14 months old, in my experience (two toddlers so far), is a little too young to expect them to learn to play independently if they aren't already the independent type. Some babies are naturally a bit more slow moving and contemplative, and some prefer to be more participants than observers (sounds like you have the latter!). Also, the 14-18 month stage is usually quite challenging, and previously easy going children may become much more demanding.

You should see independent play develop naturally once your child is over two. Before then you have to set up something for them to do, and they are really more interested in you, and what you are doing, than in any play scenario. Later on, after months of following you everywhere and getting into everything, they will learn to play on their own. Some of the earliest independent play that my toddlers developed were pretending to clean the house, sort toys, organize books, and oh yeah, talk on the phone. They needed those frustrating months of following me everywhere in order to learn how to play by themselves.

I would strongly recommend checking out the book "Your One-Year-Old: The Fun-Loving, Fussy 12-To 24-Month-Old." There is some dated parenting advice, but there are a lot of really useful observations about what kind of behavior you can expect from a 12-18 month old, which is quite different from what you can expect from a 18-24 month old.
posted by Wavelet at 8:43 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

As far as what is realistic, I have found that it varies widely even among my three kids. My oldest son played independently for long stretches before he was a year old (I remember a friend whose son was 14 months older saying to me, "You're ignoring your baby!" because I was reading a book while he played. I wasn't ignoring him. He was just that kind of baby). My almost-3-year old is on her feet and on the go and into things all the time, and has needed a mama-on-the-spot more than my older kids did. So, as far as what is realistic, in my opinion it mostly boils down to temperament and personality, and comparing kids to what is average or normal, or what your friends' kids do, can be really counter-productive.

I'm personally a "fill them up until they're full" kind of parent--I'm inclined to give kids the attention they're asking for, and they really do take that security and become independent when they're ready. I don't set limits on my attention, or only to the extent that artifarce talks about, like about being in the kitchen when there are boiling pots on the stove. In other words, I've tried to set as few limits of that kind as possible, and as the kids get older and develop they seem to get more independent on their own, though on different timetables and in different ways.
posted by not that girl at 8:58 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh my goodness. When you figure this out, please let me know what the solution is - quickly! (My third, and last, child is 2 yrs 3 mos.) Before I was a mom, I pictured myself sitting on the couch clipping coupons, while my child played happily at my feet, with all the marvelous interesting toys that I would have for him/her. Never happened! They always are much more interested eating, ripping, and sitting on Mommy's papers than playing with some old toy. Silly Mommy, trying to get some work done.

One constructive thing that I can suggest, though, is try rotating your toys. "New" toys are always good for a few more minutes of distraction than the same old toys. Put your toys into three boxes, and bring out Box #1 on week #1, and then put it away and bring out Box #2 on week #2, and so on. That way she will either forget about the toys or be re-discovering favorite toys that she has not become very bored with.

And for what it is worth, according to my mother, I, too, was a perfect baby that played for hours alone in my playpen. I think she just has a faulty memory.
posted by molasses at 9:17 AM on May 26, 2010

When I worked in a daycare, an overwhelming number of the babies that age wanted constant approval from me (or whoever was doing that age group at teh time). Some needed me sitting there in a circle with them playing and the more independant ones would walk over every few minutes and hold out the toy they were playing with to which I would say something like "Oh, look at that cool dinosaur, he's got bright blue spots!" and that fulfilled the kid's approval needs for the next few minutes till theyd come over again and show me how they could make the dinosaur jump or whatever.

For a nice change of pace, try playing music in the background. It doesn't have to be kid music, it can just be your favorite music that is kid friendly (i.e. doesn't have sexual lyrics or cuss words). You can groove along and it makes playing with the baby less tedious. You can sing to the baby and dance around a little bit and try to get the baby to bobble along. It's goofy and babys love goofy stuff.

When you need to really concentrate for a few mins, you can try to bring out the big guns. By big guns I mean toys that blow kids minds and they can explore in a self directed fashion for a bit. In my experience this would include toys in which parts move around themselves, thus sparking baby's interest and curiosity. Examples 1 2
posted by WeekendJen at 9:42 AM on May 26, 2010

Agreeing that this is normal behavior for her age.

My daughter is more than twice her age and still wants us to play with her all the time rather than playing by herself. I mean, I'm flattered, but sometimes a parent has to cook dinner, you know? It does get better, though, as they get a little older.

I've got one possible magic solution, if you don't mind the mess: Sand-and-water table.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:56 AM on May 26, 2010

I have an 18 month old that also is better at playing independently when Dad is in charge.

If you're just looking for a few minutes of peace - TV works, markers/crayons, bubbles, water and sand.

More long term, bigger picture? If she's not that kind of kid, whatchagonnado?
posted by k8t at 10:32 AM on May 26, 2010

I found that if I could take just 5-10 minutes to play with my daughter at that age, it would kind of re-start the clock so she would play by herself again for awhile. She could go about 20 minutes on her own, and then would start asking for attention (and by "ask", I mean whine and cry and carry on ;). It's so annoying when you just want to get one damn thing on your agenda done! Just one!

But taking that 10 minutes would buy me at least 20 more, sometimes longer. She is still pretty independent to this day (she'll be 3 in August).

I also admit to using the tv when necessary. Nick Jr. is quite a good channel, with zero commercials, and some of the programming is pretty good. We're watching Yo Gabba Gabba! as I type :)

Now I have a 6 month old, too. So far she's showing signs of good independence. Keep your fingers crossed that the trend continues!
posted by wwartorff at 10:49 AM on May 26, 2010

IANAP, but I read something recently in Nurture Shock about kids and independent play that I thought was pretty interesting. Basically, it was helping your kids develop a kind of "script" for play. The context was a kindergarten program called Tools of the Mind which helped kids develop their imagination, learn self-control and how to play with others. However, the author used some of the techniques with his own daughter who was perpetually bored with her toys and wanting other toys or more attention. So, he would say, hey, why don't you play with your dolls? What can you do with your dolls? Maybe they are in school this morning, in a classroom? How do they get to school? And so forth. This might be a bit difficult for a child at your age but maybe showing the child how to play with something will buy you some time. Can you stack those blocks? How high? What if you line them all up -- how far will they go?

Anyway, it's a pretty interesting book and a quick read. Maybe it'll give you some ideas.

Also, it's important to get some time to yourself. Maybe you could consider getting a half-day sitter three times a week so that when you're with your daughter you can feel a little less stressed to get all sorts of things accomplished. Good luck!
posted by amanda at 11:09 AM on May 26, 2010

Seconding wwartorff's method. I did the same thing with my now-13-and-10-year-olds. Worked like a charm and they're very independent, secure, imaginative kids. We do all kinds of things together (and have done their whole lives) but I can't remember once - really, not even once - either of them telling me they were bored and had nothing to do, because we taught them how to be independent and make their own activities.

As your child gets older, make sure you have things available to her, within her reach, that she can play with whenever she wants. In our house, it was colored pencils and crayons and loads of paper in one of the lower kitchen cabinets. They never had to get permission to draw. We also had some things that required just a little bit of parental attention, like play-doh (only in the kitchen, never on the floor) and bubbles, markers, and paints. They also had free access to an entire child-proofed room full of their toys. That room just happened to be right on the main floor of the house, in the center of the action, so to speak.

I also found that if I just couldn't get to one of them while they were fussing for attention (soapy hands, right in the middle of something), I'd call out a cheerful, "I'll be right there, sweetie! Let's sing the ABCs!" or something similar.
posted by cooker girl at 12:20 PM on May 26, 2010

Please listen to Fairchild.

FWIW I swiftly responded to not just every cry but also every fuss throughout infancy (and 14mo is still way more infant than toddler in many ways) and kept "coddling" and "spoiling" throughout toddlerhood, and my 3-this-summer daughter is an absolute delight, low on the whining, totally happy to comply and bugger off when she gets "Mummy is working right now and I need [quiet so I can make a phone call, get out of the laundry room, etc]." _Do_ thank your child when you are granted some quiet time in which to get things done! Regular "I know this is boring for you -- thank you so much for being so patient" acknowledgement works, I swear.

My husband swears that she plays perfectly contentedly alone when she's with him, and asserts that I've conditioned her to be needy around me by responding too readily to her demands.

If you buy this, why not throw it back at him and assert that he has conditioned her to believe that Daddy is, I don't know, not as desirable a parent?

wwartorff's advice on how to 'restart the clock' is solid.
posted by kmennie at 7:20 PM on May 26, 2010

For instance, my mom claims that at that age I used to play happily for an hour or so at a time in my playpen while she graded papers nearby. Realistic?

Ha! No. My mother says this stuff, too. Also that I was counting objects at 6 months old or something.

Neither of my kids has played alone more than 5-10 minutes at a time, at that age. The first wanted me to be on the floor playing with him, or would throw his shoes at me because he wanted to go somewhere. The second wanted to be on my lap or in my arms.

I've consistently responded to requests for attention with attention, and my children are constantly remarked upon as especially independent and self-directed. They walk into completely unfamiliar spaces, filled with strange children, and don't look back once, but sally forth with great confidence (sometimes too great; always gotta secure the exits). I haven't at all conditioned them to dependence, but instead have taught them that it's safe to explore the world, because they'll always be cared for. They don't need to keep checking for you if they know you'll be there!

That's longterm, though; in the meantime, this developmental stage is still highly needy. It's tough, but worth it for the confidence and independence you'll see develop over time.
posted by palliser at 9:00 PM on May 26, 2010

I think her behavior at that age is to be expected. I don't have much to say about how to change it -- though I think Nurtureshock is a great booth and second that recommendation -- but I will say this: at her age, I followed my mother everywhere and always wanted her to play with me. I had no siblings. If my mom could play with me she would, but if she needed time for herself or something else, she apologized and explained that. The first I-don't-know-how-many-times this happened I was really sad and angry and lost, I think because I hadn't really developed a capacity to play on my own yet. I'm not entirely sure I was cognitively capable of that yet.

But by the time I was two or three I got pretty good at entertaining myself. I would make up games with my dolls and whatnot, and I had some books with only a sentence or two a page that I would take out and play with sometimes. I would watch TV for a few hours a day, stuff like Sesame Street mostly but sometimes dumb stuff like Gilligan's Island and cartoons; honestly, I think those things were valuable to developing my creativity even if I didn't learn anything "important" from them. By the time I could read, my mom made sure I had as many books as I wanted -- take advantage of the library -- and I'd read eight hours a day or more if it wasn't a school day. I still played imaginary games with my dolls and stuff through the end of elementary school.

Oh, and I started playing video games around the time I was five, too, on the NES. Personally, I think those made me develop a lot of valuable skills: problem-solving, more creativity (games today have even more of a storyline than the ones I played), planning, patience, etc. They also inspired an interest in programming -- I don't do much with programming today except I can make webpages and some basic programs, but programming itself teaches its own valuable skillset. Video game music also inspired an interest in non-vocal music, which was previously the only thing I was interested in.

By middle school I preferred to be left alone. I had plenty of close friends and when they could come over or talk on the phone that was great, but I liked being by myself and reading and writing and singing and programming and doing all the other things I'd taught myself. It taught me the value of learning new things on my own. I don't know if you can train someone to become an introvert, but if it's possible, my parents did and I'm glad for it. I think it's easier to learn social skills than to learn how to entertain yourself, and I was always fairly popular at school and had no social issues. Oh, I also had no problem sitting down to do my homework.

So expect some resistance at first -- the stuff she's doing now sounds pretty expected -- and remember that if you want her to entertain herself, she needs to have some stuff around to get her started: toys, books, tv or movies, instruments and any corresponding lessons to jumpstart that (I took voice lessons and still sing; I also had a keyboard and did piano without lessons for a bit, but never got into it -- the time wasn't wasted, though), computer or video games, music, etc. Oh, and obviously I should mention athletic stuff if you have room for it; I grew up in a tiny apartment in a TERRIBLE part of town where toddlers literally would get raped, so I couldn't go outside.

For that bit until I was three or so, all I had were some dolls and those books and it wasn't easy to entertain myself for more than a few hours. I wanted to play board games or cards with my mom a lot. But once she has the cognitive ability to read and do some more complicated stuff, it should get easier for both of you.
posted by Nattie at 10:55 AM on May 27, 2010

*book, not booth (wth?)
posted by Nattie at 10:56 AM on May 27, 2010

Some of it's the temperament of the kid. It's not unusual for a kid to be more attached to interactions with one parent or another (especially if you were the lactating party, making you a focus of comfort). On the other hand it won't hurt your child to train her that when you say it's "Private time" you get time to yourself.

But yeah, there's no toy in the world more interesting than you.
posted by Phalene at 11:02 AM on January 5, 2011

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