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Raising Independent Babies — a Conversation with Solid Starts

In a recent Instagram Live conversation, Stacy Keane, the head of our Monti Kids Learning Team was joined by Jenny Best from Solid Starts, a wonderful resource about introducing real foods to your baby. 

Monti Kids and Solid Starts share a commitment to supporting parents in their journey to raise independent children. This includes nurturing their self-care skills, one of which is making healthy food choices for themselves, from as early as those first finger foods!

Tips for Encouraging Independence from Babyhood

These gems — and more — were shared by Jenny and Stacy in the Instagram Live event. There’s lots of wisdom here, so read on!

Get out of the way of progress

The biggest leaps of learning happen through struggle and experimentation. Let your child have time to work out how to get food on a spoon, for example. We don’t have to solve every problem for them. There is value in giving your child space.

When they are practicing a skill such as picking up finger food with their pincer grasp, that’s what they need – practice!

When you’re tempted to jump in, try waiting a beat to see if your child can self-correct. (At Monti Kids, we often refer to the popular Montessori teacher training tip to sit on your hands to prevent intervening!)

Release yourself from any rules-based parenting system

Take wisdom from sources that feel good to you, without being obligated to follow any specific philosophy. Modern parents endure a burden of having access to more advice from experts (and strangers!) than any previous generation. (Thanks, Instagram!)

If you begin to have an inner dialogue in which you are judging yourself based on someone else’s standards, take a step back. Do what works for you in that moment, including offering chicken nuggets three days in a row if that’s what you need to do.

Shift responsibility to your child

With an eye toward helping your little one feel empowered, put their belongings within their reach so they can be part of getting ready to leave the house or preparing to eat a meal. 

Stacy, a Montessori-certified educator, suggests:

  • Create a drawer or cabinet that is low enough for your little one to access their own utensils and bowls.
  • Place a few toys on a shelf where even a crawling baby can reach them independently.
  • Hang jacket hooks at your child’s shoulder height so they can put their own coat away when you arrive home.

These accommodations will invite your child to practice skills that fulfill their internal desire for independence.

Remember, every child’s development timeline is unique. They will find satisfaction from different activities at different stages. One sibling may enjoy trying new foods and one may find it intimidating. One two-year-old may want to put pants on by themselves while another prefers a collaboration with Dad helping.

Introduce consistent routines

When we establish routines, our children can enjoy more independence because they know what to do without prompting, which makes them feel self-sufficient.

Jenny’s family routine includes a boundary that the children may leave the table when they are done eating, but their activity choice is limited to a nearby book area. She shares that even the youngest toddler can learn the routine: get down from the table, go select a book. An older toddler can learn to bring their dish to the kitchen before visiting the books.

toddler playing with montessori pegboard
A specific play area can become part of a routine after a meal or while a parent showers.

Present limited choices

Choices are a powerful tool for toddlers. Often, presenting a choice can be the way out of a meltdown. It is calming and organizing for your little one to have the chaos of their emotions be channeled into making a simple choice. If a toy falls on the floor and breaks, we can first connect with their emotion, and then offer a choice. “That’s so disappointing. I’m sad because I saw how much fun you were having with that. Do we want to try to fix it or move on to something else?”

Use the choice method at family meals, too

When it comes to picky eating, choices provide toddlers with the power they seek. Even something as basic as choosing which cup to use can give them a sense of control. Some choices you might offer a toddler at a meal if they seem anxious about it:

  • Who will take the action: Would you like to put the apples on your plate or would you like me to do it?
  • How much food to include: Do you want one spoonful of peas or two spoonfuls?
  • The form factor of the food: Do you want your meat in strips or in small squares? Do you want the banana sliced in wheels or in the peel?

Present food as an activity

From 12 months and beyond, many children experience fear of new foods. Babies who once ate anything will now shy away from certain things. As a way to help a child get comfortable with a new food, find a way to invite them to take small steps toward it.

For example, introduce a small orange or clementine as an activity. Get the peel started and then invite them to do the rest. This allows them to experience the texture and smell before having to confront putting it in their mouth.

Other ideas Jenny uses to help her three little ones get familiar with a food before eating it: 

  • Build your own yogurt cups – offer fruit, yogurt, and other mix-ins such as jam or nut butter.
  • Build your own taco – beans, meat, cheese, lettuce, and tortillas can be assembled by your child. There’s no wrong combination!
  • Offer it away from the table – the pressure of a full plate of food can be overwhelming, but as a snack at the park, your child might be less resistant.

Let go of fears about your child eating their food

Parents need to check in with themselves at the start of a meal. Are you already anxious about what your child will or will not consume?  Trust that your little one will eventually eat what they need. Children absorb the anxiety their parent is feeling during a meal, and eating becomes a fraught power struggle.

Remind yourself that you’re not in charge of how much they eat. You are only in charge of what the choices are.  

Model desired behavior for your child

This is a fundamental principle of the Montessori approach. When we show a child a new skill, we do it with exaggerated, slowed-down movements to give them time to process what they are observing. When it comes to eating, show your baby exaggerating bites and chewing.

Model saying, “Thank you,” at the table. There is no need to tell your child to say “thank you”. They will absorb this custom by seeing you do it. 

On the playground, model taking turns and concern for others. Again, we don’t need to require our children to use specific language or tell them, “Say you’re sorry.” We simply teach them courtesy and compassion by doing it ourselves. 

More from Solid Starts and Monti Kids

If you want more tips from these two parent educators, you can watch the whole video — or follow them on Instagram for future lessons.

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