Do It Myself!

“Do it myself!” I could probably live happily without ever hearing those words again. Unfortunately, they – or some variation – are a crucial phrase in every toddler’s vocabulary, including Sprout’s. While I appreciate his need to be independent and all of that bullshit, they’re really annoying in practice.

The phrase arises most often when Sprout is supposed to be doing something that he can do, but isn’t actually doing at the moment. For some reason, it’s the most common in the bathroom. When he’s supposed to be washing his hands, he often just sticks his right hand under the water rather than rubbing them together. Other popular options include splashing in the pool of water or sticking his palm against the faucet so it sprays everywhere. For toothbrushing, he prefers to gnaw on it with his back teeth instead of actually brushing them.

In both of these cases, he knows perfectly well how to do the activity – as I’ve seen him do it correctly – but is utterly uninterested in doing so. He’d much rather mess around playing in the sink or delaying bedtime. However, when I try to help him, he flails his hands and yells, “Do it myself!” While he can, it doesn’t make his futzing any less annoying when dinner is getting cold or his official bedtime is long behind us.

Unfortunately, my options for hurrying him up are limited for both philosophical and practical reasons.

In theory, I could get him to obey by physically forcing him to do it the way I want him to. However, I try to limit my physical enforcement of rules as much as possible to only the most dangerous of situations (like running in the road).

Physical enforcement often goes hand-in-hand with “might-makes-right” and authoritarian parenting, messages that I try to avoid at nearly all costs. The more I can convince Sprout that he should follow the rules because he wants to – or at least feels he should – the more he’ll form a moral compass in the future.

On a sheerly practical level, physical enforcement seems more effort than it’s worth for the stress. In a power struggle between a toddler and an adult, the toddler will always win in some way or another.

For example, the dentist recommended if he wouldn’t let us brush his teeth that one of us hold him between our knees and the other force his mouth open. Because that’s a great way to calm a toddler down before bed! No thank you on the additional half-hour needed to bring him down from a massive tantrum.

In fact, forcing him to do these things can actually be pretty dangerous. When he brushes his teeth or washes his hands, he uses a small stool to reach the sink. If he freaks out, waving his hands and stomping his feet, he could easily fall off it. He’s fallen off “dancing” around, much less throwing an actual tantrum. Slightly cleaner hands done a couple minutes earlier isn’t worth head trauma.

Instead, I try to find alternative ways to motivate him. When he says, “Do it myself!” I tell him, “I know you can – so show me!” Sometimes that works. When he’s spraying water all over the place, I prevent him from getting what he wants by cupping my hands around it so the spray is limited. I’ll only sing the tooth brushing song if he’s actually brushing them correctly. When he does actually do things correctly, I congratulate and praise him heartily.

And sometimes I just breathe deep, put my head in my hands, and wait. Eventually, he’ll do it right if I just give him time. After all, it’s just a phase.

When does your kid (or one you know) say, “Do it myself!!”

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