Lessons from an Autonomous Toddler

By Leslie Silk Eslinger

By Leslie Silk Eslinger, Education and Product Development Specialist at Becker’s School Supplies

I’m channeling Erik Erikson for this post. I was inspired to do this from an interaction I just had with my daughter. She chastised me for a reprimand I gave my granddaughter during a recent weekend visit. She did it with a few impactful words. “Mom!  Autonomy vs. shame and doubt.” 

Whoa. She’s quoting Erikson. Time for me to brush up on child development! A few days later I pulled out the trusty reference, Theories of Childhood by Carol Garhart Mooney.

How quickly I had forgotten this well-regarded theory of toddler development. She was right on. This is a time to strengthen a child’s social, emotional, and mental health development. This is foundational stuff. So the abrupt “no” I exclaimed to Sophie could have been averted. No one was in imminent danger. Sophie is a bundle of energy and eagerness. She was in full stride of exercising her newfound autonomy. No one wants to discourage that.

Does this mean saying “no” is off the table? Absolutely not. Toddlers are looking to us for setting safe boundaries. “No” has its place. 

According to Erikson, the toddler years are a time to acquire independence (autonomy) and in turn, develop a strong sense of self. The resulting impact of not supporting these early expressions of independence is instilling the unpleasant emotions of shame and doubt.

So those cries of “Me,” Mine! Me do it!” that toddler teachers hear every day are all part of a toddler’s hard work to develop autonomy.

Now here’s the reality check. In group child care, it can’t be a free for all. We all know that. We will say “no” judiciously. But as I was reminded by my daughter – find every opportunity to offer control and choice. These need to be legitimate choices. Not the ones that really mean it’s my way or the highway!

My thanks to my daughter, Erikson, and Sophie for refreshing my memory and reminding me that toddlers are delicate creatures that sometimes show bullish behavior. And our work as educators and moms and grandmoms is to manage the china shop!


Leslie Eslinger is the Education and Product Development Specialist at Becker’s School Supplies.  Previously, Leslie spent 12 years serving as a resource and program director at a non-profit, community-based organization which provided comprehensive services to child care programs in the Philadelphia area.

Leslie has been involved in early childhood education for over 30 years as a teacher, mentor, trainer, and administrator. Over the last 20 years, she has developed and presented professional development workshops at local, regional, and national conferences. She served on the board of the USA Toy Library Association for many years. She authored her first book, Theme Kits Made Easy, in 2002. She attended Bank Street College of Education in NYC and earned her M.Ed. degree in Early Childhood Education from Arcadia College in Glenside, PA.