Our babies are born egocentric. They've got to be, in order to survive. They cry, and we jump to feed them, change a diaper, check if they're comfortable, or give them a cuddle. Ah, but it turns out that the little sweethearts also come into the world with a natural inclination to be kind, even selfless. German psychology researcher Felix Warneken, PhD, showed that 18-month-olds exhibit altruistic behavior. In one experiment, Dr. Warneken dropped a small object and pretended it was out of reach. More often than not -- without being asked or rewarded -- the toddlers helped.
Want your kids to pitch in around the house? Let 'em see you cleaning, clearing, cooking, sorting, sweeping, and all the rest. And invite them to join you. "The key is to show, show, show," says Parents advisor Michele Borba, EdD. author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. "Kids learn by watching their parents. It's much better than telling them what to do." Capitalize on your child's want-to-do attitude and soon she'll beg, "Let me help some more!"
A job that seems simple to us -- sweeping up crumbs and dust -- can be complicated to a child. Break down the task into steps. First, you might ask her to hold the dustpan while you use the broom to sweep in grime. Then ask her to carry it to the trash can. Her next step may be sweeping part of the floor with her own broom while you handle the dustpan. Every day add another step until, finally, she can do the entire task on her own -- sweep, gather in dustpan, dump. If her way of "helping" just scatters the dirt over a wider area, that's okay. Learn to live with imperfection. (Or at least don't let her see you redo whatever she's just done.) You want her to feel proud of her work.
What's more fun than making the bed? Making the bed and then having a pillow fight with Mom! A 4-year-old can pull up her comforter and fluff her pillow, and that's great. The littlest ones can learn to place plush friends at the head of their bed and tuck folded pj's under their pillow. Make chores a part of the family routine -- every morning, your child gets up, brushes her teeth, gets dressed, and makes her bed. You can even create a chart for your kid to follow.
At the store, encourage your child to choose some fruits and veggies to buy. Later, at home, make unpacking fun (dare we say, educational?). Ask him, "Can you find the apples? How many did we buy? How about the bananas? What color are they?" From now on, it's his job to put food in the pantry, fridge, and other spots he can easily reach and open. At snacktime, have him hand you the strawberries or string cheese from the fridge. Knowing where they are will be a big boost to his independence. Just be sure to keep fragile or not-so-healthy goodies safely out of sight on higher shelves.
Put plastic plates and glasses on a low counter, and then ask your helper to carry them one by one to the table. With a little practice, she'll be ferrying a small stack. Draw a place setting for each family member -- plate in the middle, fork and napkin on the left, spoon (skip the knife) on the right -- then laminate to make place mats. Your preschooler will find it easy to follow the drawing.
The kitchen is a fascinating place for curious little minds. First, stress these rules: Don't go near the stove; don't touch any appliance (put knives out of reach); wash hands before and after handling food. Your preschooler can rinse string beans or tear lettuce for a salad. As you and your helper get more comfortable, ask her to stir together dry ingredients and clean counters with a sponge.
This is a no-brainer: Your cute kid + a basket of warm, clean clothes = pure joy. Sorting laundry -- tops versus bottoms -- or matching up socks is not only an easy task for first-time helpers but also a great way to spend some quality time with a parent. There's no mess and you're guaranteed plenty of laughter thanks to the old underpants-on-the-head shenanigans. Other tasks you can teach your preschooler: to place dirty clothes in a hamper, separate whites and colors, and, eventually, fold and put away clean stuff.
Children as young as 2 can gather their playthings if you make the task easy for them. Designate lower shelves for your kids' books and games. Get biggish bins to contain trucks, stuffed animals, and other large toys. Establish a pickup routine right after the kids are done playing so it becomes second nature -- and even part of the fun. Challenge your toddler to see how fast he can get all the trains put away. (Kids love to beat the clock.)
Encouraging your older child to take part in daily baby duty not only ensures she doesn't feel left out but also strengthens the kids' growing sibling bond. A big sister can fetch a diaper at changing time or wipe the baby's face after a feeding. Depending on her age, she can entertain him while you heat a bottle. Remember to tell your number-one assistant what a great, loving job she's done; she'll be eager to do more.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Parents magazine.