Help Young Children Become Confident and Competent

Recently I noticed some new behavior (involving control issues) for Suzy (3 years old). I invited Mom to meet for a “fact finding” conference. The following is what we learned.

It all started when Suzy announced one day at lunch “I like these eggs. I won’t eat eggs at home”. Mom had previously mentioned to me that she thought Suzy wasn’t eating enough at home. I assured her that she ate fine at school. A red light went off for me. Was Suzy using food as a means of gaining control at home?

Also I noticed that Suzy had become the new leader in her small circle of friends. Well, she was actually more like a dictator -and not a very benevolent one, either! Another red light.

Then, during a recent medical exam, an x-ray showed a partial bowel blockage. Could this be more control?

I asked Mom if there were any changes at home. In fact there were some major changes. For example, Mom had been referring to Suzy as the baby. When Mom asked older brother to do something for Suzy, Suzy retorted: “Mom, I am not a baby”. After some discussion, Mom admitted that since Suzy is the last child, she has been holding onto the baby aspect. Good for Mom. Not good for Suzy. It’s always a good idea to visit the sibling relationship. We talked about her 5-year old brother. Seems that brother is routinely chosen to perform various chores around the house. Brother also exerts strict control over his room and possessions. Red lights are flashing all over the place now.

Of all the child development psychologists, I like the theory of Erik Erickson. He looks at development in stages and believes that each stage has a “crisis” to be resolved before a child can successfully move to the next stage. From 0 to 18 months, the crisis is trust vs. mistrust. This is when the child learns/determines that his world is a safe or unsafe place, based on whether his needs are being met. From 18 months to 3 years (approximately), the crisis is autonomy/independence vs. doubt. This is the time for children to test, to exert control, and begin to feel a sense of independence. This is good. If this doesn’t happen, the child will doubt their abilities, and perhaps seek control in negative ways – or worse yet, maybe be too repressed to do either. This is bad.

Our job is to create situations where children can gain some control, independence and self-esteem in positive ways. We need to steer them. How? We could begin by giving them small choices, e.g. “Do you want to wear the red or blue shirt?” Instead of telling what to do, ask questions and let the child think and make a decision e.g. “What will happen if your glass is near the edge of the table?” or “What do you think will happen to your book if you leave it where people will be walking?” And don’t forget jobs. What a wonderful way to feel responsible and proud! Children are so capable – if we give them the opportunity. Children can sort silverware in the dishwasher or drawers; they can sort laundry, especially their own clothes; fold washcloths; they can sweep with a dustpan and brush or small broom; sponge the table, etc., etc.

Developing these skills will take a little time; and just when you have nearly reached perfection, it will be time for the next “crisis”. Oh no!

If you have questions or comments about this issue – or any others, please email me at

Carolynn DiGiuseppi is a certified Montessori teacher with a Site Supervisor Permit and a Master Teacher’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. With over 35 years of experience caring for children, she is the Director of Carolynn’s Montessori for Toddlers in Petaluma.