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Declarations of Independence

Surviving the emergence of determination and self-confidence

When Muffin and Squeaker were infants, things were difficult for Michael and me because we were new parents with no clue what we were doing. We had to adapt to the new challenge of having two babies totally dependent on us and the burden of doing so on minimal sleep. “It will get easier,” everyone told us. And to some extent they were correct. The day-to-day effort of handling the needs of the girls has gotten easier. But as Muffin and Squeaker mature, they discover more that they want to do, and it is up to us to determine what is safe and what is possible and, as necessary, stand our ground when they want to do things we have determined are not permissible.

Unsurprising to either Michael or me, Muffin is the more active boundary pusher. She frequently responds to almost any situation with “Muffin do it!” whether the “it” in question is putting on a pair of pants or putting a serving of macaroni and cheese on her tray. She will try valiantly to put on her own pants, but when she discovers that she can’t quite coordinate both legs into the pants legs she will look at me and say “Mommy do it!” or “Mommy help!”

Squeaker, on the other hand, responds to adversity with a tantrum. She gets frustrated when a situation differs from what she desires. She will get upset if we won’t let her play with a “toy” such as a seam-ripper from Mommy’s sewing kit. One night, she threw a tantrum when we had the temerity to insist that she wear something to cover her diaper while she slept. (In truth, she’d rather go without even the diaper, but we frequently inform her that she is stuck in diapers until she decides to use the potty.) She wants to do things for herself and choose things for herself, but she is frequently stymied by her lack of coordination.

One task the girls have recently undertaken has proven to be both a help and a hindrance–sweeping the floor. I spend a lot of time sweeping our dining room and living room floors to remove cracker crumbs, wayward breakfast cereal, and the other day-to-day detritus generated by Muffin and Squeaker. Until about three weeks ago, this was a relatively straightforward process: after the girls had finished whatever snack was generating the crumbs, I’d go to the kitchen, get my broom, dustpan, and brush, and sweep up while the girls occupied themselves with whatever diversion had now caught their fancy. But recently they realized that Mommy was doing something potentially interesting. They would violate the no-kitchen rule that we have in place, go to where the brooms are stored, and drag them back into the dining room to attempt to sweep up themselves. Of course, since they are shorter than the brooms and not yet skilled at cleanup, they do more destructive work than actual cleanup. They have become quite adept at spreading the crumbs further into the corners and under furniture, thus increasing the workload for me. Of course, I have trouble discouraging them, since I appreciate that they want to help and want to clean up. Michael got them toy broom sets that are appropriate to their height, so I am now less worried about them whacking each other with long broom handles accidentally, but they still have not completely mastered the actual task of cleaning.

Another household task that has interested them for a while is laundry folding. For a number of months they have enjoyed taking the warm-from-the-dryer clothing and holding it up to themselves. But recently they have also enjoyed attempting to “fold” the clothing as well. Of course, their attempts at folding provide more jumbling than neatening, but the idea is at least there. And as an added bonus, I have discovered that an easy way to break up a squabble between the girls is to bring out clothing that needs folding, as they will almost immediately get distracted from whatever they were fighting over and decide to come “help” Mommy instead.

Michael and I try to foster the girls’ independence, and we appreciate that they want to discover their world for themselves, but sometimes the clash between their desires and our fears for their safety reach an impasse. And that’s when we have to make the difficult decisions–decisions that trigger crying and possibly a tantrum–to keep the girls safe. Finding a way to support their inquisitiveness and independence while ensuring their safety is likely to be an ongoing process.

This week’s column is written by Nomi S. Burstein.

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