Work is lots of fun—when you’re a toddler

August 11, 2015

Why is it that the most cooperative helpers in the house are generally its littlest residents? Why can’t helpfulness be proportional to age rather than inversely proportional?

It never ceases to amaze me how much a two-year-old likes to help Mommy, and how fast that changes when the child is old enough for chores.

It can be fun to work with a toddler as your right-hand man, but it can also be slightly frustrating.

Often we get in such a hurry to get things done that it’s hard to wait patiently for your two-foot bundle of energy to take five minutes doing what you can do in seconds. A friend of ours, a farmer, always says he is raising boys, not potatoes—he well knows where his best work needs to be.

But what can a small child do to help? What chores are they capable of? Heavy lifting is out. Making beds is...highly amusing. Emptying trash cans requires a backup crew. And vacuuming? The vacuum is taller than a four-year-old and weighs about as much as one.

But preschoolers still want to help—and it’s wise to let them. It’s a great time for them to learn how to work while it’s still exciting and fun. Teaching them to pick up their toys now—even if we have to hold their hands and show them how—is good practice for learning how to put away their clean clothes later.

When we remodeled our kitchen, I kept my little ones in mind. What could they reach? What did I want them to reach? What would they be able to reach whether I wanted them to or not? And, finally, what could they do to help?

We put the cupboard where plates are kept underneath the counter, next to the dishwasher. The utensil drawer is above it. A child as young as 18 months can learn how to empty most of a dishwasher. It’s easy to put the plates in the cupboard right next to it.

Obviously, there are no glass items in that cupboard. Those are stored higher, out of reach. But our everyday dishes don’t break easily, and plastic cups are all the rage in our house.
We have to put away the pans and knives before the child gets involved, which allows enough time for the items in the dishwasher to cool down.

Silverware is a different matter. It comes out of the dishwasher, too, but the most we allow them to do is just dump handfuls of forks and spoons into the drawer and we take care of the rest.
If I don’t happen to get it put away properly...oh, well. We will just use those utensils at the next meal, anyway. What we gained was a great way to teach a tiny person how to do a chore, and it gives me a reason to praise him as we work together.

There is another benefit to having the dishes in a lower cupboard. The cups are there, too, allowing children to get their own drinks of water. When six of the children were under the age of eight, they just plain had to learn how to do some things for themselves. My job was to teach them how.

After a while, my children would generally be ready for another challenge, so I would teach them another chore. Next, we tried setting the table. After all, the dishes were within reach.
Since many toddlers naturally show interest in the things their parents are doing around the house and yard, harnessing that enthusiasm makes more sense than squelching it.

When teaching kids to work, be an example. Work alongside them. Teach them how to do jobs properly. Children are much more likely to complete a chore—and do a better job—if they are working with a parent. And if they aren’t taught how to work and clean as they get progressively older, they won’t know how to take care of their own homes when they grow up.

Long-term, it’s not just about the chore. Knowing how to work, how to follow through and finish a job, and how to be responsible are skills children need in order to become hard-working adults.

Besides, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from looking at a completed job and feeling good about what you have done!

Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.

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