Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Hi Carolyn: My wife and I have a wonderful 3-year-old son. He likes to be held all the time. He weighs about 35 pounds. My wife is OK with holding him, but I don’t want him to get used to being held all the time. At home he runs around but especially in new situations he likes to be held.
My wife is a stay-at-home mom so they spend a lot of time together. I think it’s important for him to walk but he constantly asks to be picked up. What should we do?
— Tired of Carrying a Toddler
DEAR TIRED OF CARRYING A TODDLER: Say yes when you’re OK with holding him, and say no when you’re not.
That’s not as simplistic as it seems: It’s about you, the parent, taking control instead of ceding it to your boy. Which is everything.
If he has a tantrum at “no,” then calmly wait it out and/or remove him from the situation.
Keep things in perspective, too, by putting your fear to what I call the high-school test: How many (ambulatory) high-school kids have you seen ask their parents to pick them up and carry them?
You don’t need to get this exactly right. If you don’t solve the problem, then time will solve it for you.
Obviously a high schooler can be too attached or coddled and just show it in different ways than a toddler would. You do want your child to learn emotional independence.
But it’s useful to take a long view in getting your son to that goal, to keep things in perspective. You can put him down when you’re tired. Your wife will put him down when she’s tired or he’s just too big. These will happen naturally and therefore will teach the lessons better than will a deliberate effort (under duress) to, say, preempt the spoiling you fear is happening under your nose. That is your fear, yes?
There are other ways to teach independence, too. Assign age-appropriate chores. Let him make simple, “X or Y?”-type choices about his clothes or snacks. Have him order his own food in restaurants as soon as he’s able. Have him talk to his doctors as soon as able. Care how he feels, but don’t live or die by his moods.
And, teach him throughout his childhood to develop healthy, age-appropriate coping skills. His hesitation in new situations will probably stay with him long after he’s too big to be picked up — it could well be his nature — so what else can he do when he’s nervous? Role-play some options when the time comes. Keep gently introducing new things so he gets better at handling nerves and novelties. Admit that you get nervous sometimes yourself, and talk about ways you keep your courage up.
His being happily bonded to both of you, and your being happily and mutually affectionate with your wife, is the winning combination. Beyond that: Consistent, rational and comprehensive teaching as you nudge him toward independence will erase any expectation that, literally or figuratively, you’ll be carrying him through life.