At the end of the day, my 3-year-old daughter, Katelyn, knows she has to do two things: put her clothes in the hamper and her toys in the toy box. When my mom heard about this routine, she insisted that Katelyn is too young for chores. "Why does she have to pick up after herself?" she asked me. "Why not just let her be a kid?"
What my mother doesn't realize is that it's a good idea to ask a child this age to pick up her blocks and dirty clothes. Child-development experts say giving toddlers small chores helps boost their self-esteem and makes them feel as though they're an important part of the family. In fact, the benefits are so great that most experts agree that kids should start helping out as soon as they can follow simple directions -- usually around age 2 1/2.
"The earlier you get kids involved, the better," says Tricia K. Neppl, PhD, a researcher at the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research at Iowa State University, in Ames. "It's easier at this age, because toddlers are very eager to help and they think chores are fun. Helping Mommy and Daddy makes them feel confident and useful." Here's how to make the most of that can-do attitude.
No preschooler is going to become a whiz at housework; he won't even stick with one task for too long without getting distracted. Your goal now is simply to encourage good habits, so start small. Most 2- or 3-year-olds can handle simple sorting, picking up objects and placing them in a container, and mimicking movements such as sweeping with a broom. "If you expect a child to take on something he's not capable of doing, he'll get overwhelmed and frustrated," says family therapist Cheryl Erwin, PhD, author of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers: For Their Early Years -- Raising Children Who Are Responsible, Respectful, and Resourceful. Succeeding at something simple -- putting his pajamas under his pillow every morning or helping you sort the socks when you're folding the laundry -- lets your child enjoy his accomplishment and makes him eager to do more as his skills develop.
For preschoolers, the thrill of "helping out" is working with you. So instead of giving orders, ask her to pitch in when you're cleaning. Need to tidy up the playroom? Say, "You pick up the blocks, while I put the stuffed animals away." When you're cleaning your child's room, give her a rag and show her how to "dust" the furniture as you do the same. Dr. Erwin also suggests using these times to talk about why chores are important. Say something like, "We all have to put our things away after we use them so we can find them when we need them and so the house won't be messy." A preschooler may not fully understand your words right now, but with enough repetition, the message will sink in.
It's an understandable reaction: You ask your child to pick up his toys, but when he doesn't do it quickly enough, you rush in and do it yourself. Or even worse, you take over because he isn't doing it your way. Although it's usually faster and easier (and often less aggravating) to do things yourself, you'll undermine your child's efforts and send him the wrong message if you constantly jump in. "He'll feel like he's not good enough or that he's letting you down," explains Amy Needham, PhD, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. Resist the temptation by giving your child plenty of time to help so he can work at his own pace. "Kids do things slowly for a reason," says Dr. Erwin. "At this age, they need to explore so they can learn from every task you give them." If you need something done quickly, handle it solo.
If you ask your child to put her clothes in the hamper today, but do it for her tomorrow, she'll get confused. She'll also wonder whether she has to listen to you the next time you tell her to do something. So once you give a child a routine chore, try to stick with it. Just don't expect perfection: A toddler will inevitably leave one dirty sock on the floor or forget to put her cereal bowl on the counter, so don't get mad. Just remind her and then thank her for trying. If you're generous with hugs, kisses, and encouraging words, you'll probably have a willing helper for a long time to come.
Toddlers will want to pitch in if you give them cool tasks like these.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.