10 Parenting Hacks for Getting Toddlers to Do Things for Themselves

Tired of doing everything for your toddler? Here, a dad of two dishes on the secrets to getting kids to master some self-help skills.
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Updated March 9, 2020

During the baby stage, you naturally do everything for your child, from dressing and feeding them to pulling out and putting away their toys. Once your little one hits the toddler years and is actually capable of doing some things for themselves, though, it’s important to start teaching some early self-help skills. Of course, that’s often easier said than done, especially when it’s so much simpler (and faster) to just do it for them. But taking the time to let them do things on their own helps your child become self-sufficient and an independent thinker. (And hey, wouldn’t it be nice not to have to do everything yourself?).

So how can you go about getting toddlers to things for themselves? Try these 10 best hacks to encourage self-reliance.

1. Try the Jacket Flip and Zip

Toddlers are notorious for struggling with their coats. Make getting dressed a breeze with the “jacket flip and zip.” I had never heard of this maneuver until my kids’ daycare teachers taught it to them—and was amazed the first time I saw one of my 2-year-old twins perform it flawlessly. To do it, have you child lay their jacket on the ground with the hood down toward their feet and the inside facing up. Your kid can then dive their arms into the sleeves and flip the jacket up and over their head, getting it on easily. (Even when they don’t totally nail it, it’s hilarious just to watch.)

2. Pick Loose Shirts and Pants with Elastic Bands

Putting on shoes and doing up buttons is tough for little hands to handle, but you can encourage toddlers to at least partially dress themselves by choosing the right pants and shirts. Loose shirts without buttons are much easier to pull arms through, and pants with elastic bands and belt loops help kids pull them up and get them on. You’ll still have to help with socks and shoes, but it’s a big step toward building self-help skills for toddlers.

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3. Let Toddlers Feed Themselves with Oversized Spoons

One of the first tastes of independence for toddlers is often the act of feeding themselves. To help your little one along, try giving them oversized spoons. We stumbled on this hack one day when all the little spoons were dirty and we had to grab larger ones—but we realized a big spoon can make the act of self-feeding a bit less difficult and scary. You might be hesitant to give your little ones that much freedom when it comes to such a messy activity, but we were completely surprised how quickly our boys became adept and fairly clean eaters.

4. “Cook” Together During Meal Prep

My boys would always get underfoot while my wife and I were in the kitchen preparing food, which is especially dangerous when the oven is on or knives are involved. So to get them out of the way, we started giving them bowls, spoons and pots of their own to “cook” with us. We may do cooking classes with them when they’re a little older, but for now they’re learning food doesn’t get cooked without some work.

5. Ask Toddlers to Bring a Blanket for Diaper Changes

We stumbled on this hack after using a blanket for our toddlers’ diaper changes a few times when the changing pad was dirty. When their diapers were dirty, our boys started either bringing the blanket over to us to set up or spreading it out themselves. It let us know exactly when they needed to be changed before we started potty training.

6. Store Toys in Large, Individual Bins

Cleaning up can feel like a chore, not just for toddlers but for also the parents who have to negotiate with their kids over every Duplo block. Big, individual containers make it easier to figure out where toys go (pasting on pictures can help non-readers) and a little more fun to clean up. Make a game out of it, like cornhole, where you lightly toss some of the more durable toys into the bin.

7. Give Toddlers Big Cups to Wash Their Own Hair

Building a routine of hygiene and self-care is also important to start early on, and bath time is an ideal opportunity. With a set of big plastic cups, which are easier for small hands to get around and lift up, some toddlers will actually start washing themselves, especially if they think the splashing is fun. Just make sure to put a few towels down around the tub—things are about to get very wet.

8. Have Toddlers Brush Their Hair with Chunky Brushes

Preventing tangles and staying well-coiffed is another great way for toddlers to start learning to take care of themselves. With big-handled brushes, they can practice brushing their own hair without much pulling or tugging. As they get a little older, they’ll even develop their own sense of personal style and expression. Getting toddlers comfortable with their appearances and self-image is also essential to prevent negative body image issues down the road.

9. Get a Steady Stool for the Sink

After using the potty or before eating, encouraging kids to wash their hands is a critical step in teaching personal hygiene—and a good footstool helps kids access the sink on their own. Plus, it lets kids stand high enough to see into the bathroom mirror as they brush their teeth so they can see what they’re doing and practice proper brushing. It might even help prevent the dreaded toddler morning breath.

10. Use “This Little Piggy” When Putting on Lotion

Like many kids, our toddlers get dry skin. We figured letting them put lotion on by themselves would be a great opportunity for self-reliance—we just had to figure out how to get them to do it. Our solution: Put some lotion on the kids’ hands and then repeat the “this little piggy went to market” rhyme. At the end, when the last little piggy cries “wee wee wee all the way home,” have the kids tickle themselves—or each other—all over their bodies. That lotion will be spread around in no time.

Published January 2019

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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