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Published May 07, 2012, 11:30 PM

Toddler and preschoolers can help you around the house, and learn independence doing so

FARGO - Tidying up and other household chores can feel like a futile exercise when there’s a toddler around. Each chore accomplished is quickly undone by messy hands. That’s if the parent can focus long enough to finish the task in the first place amid childcare demands.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO - Tidying up and other household chores can feel like a futile exercise when there’s a toddler around. Each chore accomplished is quickly undone by messy hands. That’s if the parent can focus long enough to finish the task in the first place amid childcare demands.

Connecticut blogger Roo wrote about this conundrum earlier this year on her blog, Nice Girl Notes.

“While I love the time slots that Jack whisks the girls away so I can deep clean, I’ve realized that as their main caretaker, I need to be able to get things done even when I have a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old underfoot,” she writes. “Which seems impossible. And I always hated when mothers with more experience would say things like ‘Oh, just get them to help you! They love that!’ Right. While I’m unloading the dishwasher, Baby Shark can practice her knife throwing skills. Sounds totally feasible and safe.”

Truth is, as the blogger discovered, toddlers and preschoolers can be a household helper when given age-appropriate tasks. An added bonus: Chores give these little ones a sense of pride and purpose.

“It builds a sense of identity,” says Anna Runestad, a parent educator with Moorhead’s Early Childhood Family Education program. “They have a role. Everybody wants to feel needed, to feel like part of something bigger than themselves. ‘If I weren’t here, who would do that?’ ”

Runestad often talks about chores with parents of 3- and 4-year-olds during ECFE classes. But even children under age 2 can get involved.

“When they’re really, really little and they want to do whatever you’re doing, when they want to be crawling in the dishwasher and go in the laundry room … even though you feel they’re under your feet and in the way, they’re learning the process,” she says.

Wait too long to introduce chores and parents miss out on that natural curiosity, she adds.

At the downtown Fargo YMCA Child Care Center, 2-year-olds pick up toys, use small dust pans and brooms to clean up after lunch and art projects, and are sometimes given small buckets of water and rags for scrubbing, says Shannon Lang, early childhood director at the Fercho branch.

“We know they’re just learning their fine motor skills and coordination,” Lang says. “They love to clean, and help. There’s not a lot they can’t do at this age. You just have to simplify it. Have it be one instruction at a time.”

At ages 3 and 4, parents can have more expectations for their children, and teach them more complex chores with multiple steps, Runestad says.

Parents will still need to offer reminders, and focus on the process instead of the end results.

“It takes a lot of practice before you can pull back and have them do it without involvement,” Runestad says.

To start, think about chores in different ways. Hanging up a towel after a bath, putting a piece of paper in the garbage and placing clothes in the hamper are routines to adults, but chores for children.

“Look for chores in the things you have to do every day. Those are the ones that are going to make the most sense for them,” Runestad says.

Think about what chores are priorities for the family, and get the child involved. Don’t make up tasks just to keep the child busy.

Be specific when giving chores. Instead of saying “Clean your room,” say “Put your books on the shelf.”

Runestad advises setting up the home in a way that allows children to do things for themselves. Have a coat hook within their reach. Use smaller pitchers for milk and water so the child can pour his own glass.

To encourage children to keep doing their chores, nagging isn’t going to help, Runestad says. Rather modeling and sharing the task will encourage behavior.

Parents can impose natural or logical consequences. If a toy isn’t put away, it may get broken and then can’t be played with again. Think about what chores a child should accomplish before being allowed to do something they want, like watch a show or go to the park.

Some children are motivated by sticker charts, Runestad says. It may be helpful to have a list of chores as a visual aid. Chores can be turned into games, or set to music. Runestad has read about families hiding pennies that can be found when the child picks up her toys.

Lang says parents shouldn’t pay children to do chores. They should be an expected part of living in the home.

Finally, parents need to let go of perfection.

“Sometimes people, myself included, think I can do it quicker myself and it would be done the way I want it to be done. But then you’re missing the teachable moment when you can not only spend time with your child, but they’re learning valuable lessons as well,” Runestad says.

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