Q: Is it OK to start teaching our 1-year-old how to play independently? He screams and cries when I put him in any type of enclosure if he can't get "free," even when I arrange the furniture in a way that he has a very ample play area. Is there a method to teach him how to play by himself for at least a little bit? It seems I am following him around the house all day so he can't get into trouble or hurt himself or damage furniture, etc. We have our house baby-proofed, but he is very creative with the things he likes to get into.
A: First, you don’t “teach” a 1-year-old to play independently. They begin playing independently, on their own, as soon as they begin moving around. Second, you’ve told me — without realizing that you’ve told me — that your son is already playing independently. You write, “…he is very creative with the things he likes to get into.”
You’ve described the way a 1-year-old plays. They get into things. They rummage, crumple, tear, feel, taste, throw and the like. That’s why store-bought toys are a waste of money for a child this age. It doesn’t matter that a team of child development experts deemed a certain toy “developmentally appropriate” and that you can only purchase it from a catalog or online — it’s a waste of money.
Ordinary household stuff is what 1-year-olds want. They seem to intuitively realize that store-bought toys are an attempt to distract them from the truly interesting stuff that’s sitting on shelves and hidden in drawers and cabinets. Their two-part creed seems to be “If I don’t find it, it’s not worth playing with,” and “The worth of a toy is inversely proportional to the effort the big people make to get me to play with it.”
If you feel compelled to follow your son around all day so he doesn’t get into forbidden stuff, then you haven’t baby-proofed adequately. First, gate off rooms that can’t be proofed without major rearranging. In other words, don’t gate him into a room; rather, gate him out of certain rooms. Then, go into every room that’s not gated and remove everything that poses risk to him. Replace every item you remove with a common household item that is safe. Examples are empty product boxes — put a surprise in each one — and other containers, pots, kitchen utensils and so on. Your son is screaming because a) you’re gating him in rather than gating him out, and b) the stuff you’re gating him in with doesn’t interest him in the least.
Every store that sells child-proofing paraphernalia carries child-proof cabinet latches. If there’s no reasonable alternative to keeping certain “bad” stuff in a certain cabinet, then by all means use a child-proof latch — although I have heard that some kids, future safecrackers, no doubt, figure them out. I generally prefer, however, to make cabinets safe places and let toddlers explore and hide in them.
The more effective you are at child-proofing, the more independently and longer your son will play, and the smarter he will become as he does — and the more relaxed a mother you will be.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.