Our son Matt was the kind of toddler who was into everything. I used to feel like I spent my days just following him around and putting the house back together. One morning when I went to our bedroom to make the bed, I found that 18-month-old Matt had discovered the basket of clean laundry and strewed clean clothes all over the room.
I picked them up, made the bed, started down the hall and noticed that I had left the linen closet door open. Matt had removed and scattered the contents on every shelf he could reach. I picked it all up and proceeded to the living room, where I found that he had removed all the books from the low bookshelves and scattered them everywhere.
Matt wasn't being deliberately naughty. He was active and curious, that was all. And I needed to learn how to harness that energy, for his sake and mine.
My first mistake was picking up all that laundry myself. What I should have done was to go fetch Matt and show him how to help me put the laundry back in the basket, or sort and fold it -- not as punishment, just as a simple chore that he and I could enjoy doing together.
Inviting children to work alongside you
Including young children in your work helps keep them busy and occupied in a constructive way -- directing their energy to help instead of hinder and building within them a strong sense of self confidence, belonging, and personal significance.
"The earlier you start including them in family chores," my friend Rosie Jones says, "the more the concept of helping and being of service in the family sets into their hearts." Rosie should know. She raised eight children.
What can toddlers & preschoolers do?
"What kind of work can a toddler or preschooler help with?" I asked Rosie years ago, when she still had little ones at home and I was writing a parenting column for the local newspaper. Her words are still spot on today – during this time of the COVID-19 crisis when preschools are closed – as they were then.
Here’s what she said in 1994:
Pick up chores
"Even our little Joshua, who is 11 months old, helps pick up," Rosie said. "He started walking at 8 months. As soon as they start to walk, you can start teaching them to pick up their blocks, books, dolls, and cars. You make it a game at first. You count 'One, Two' as you pick up."
Folding and sorting laundry is another chore. Andrea, age 2, likes to help her mom and her older brothers and sisters with that job. "At first, toddlers just sort out the underwear and socks," Rosie explained, "then gradually they learn to fold."
"They start by folding washcloths and small hand towels," Rosie said. "They learn to match up the corners, and that builds up their motor skills. Then they learn to fold diapers and carry the stacks of diapers to the bedroom. It's a big help for everyone."
Toddlers and preschoolers can save a lot of wear and tear on Mom's knees by dusting base boards and lower parts of the furniture, Rosie said. "We have a lot of antique furniture, and Andrea loves crawling around with Timothy (age 5) dusting below knee level."
"And the toddlers love to take the throw rugs out and shake them," she said. "It makes them feel big because they can shake all that dirt out of the rugs."
"Preschoolers can help by stripping the beds -- from about age 4," Rosie said. "They help with the pillowcases, too. One holds the case and the other one stuffs the pillow into the case."
Some preschoolers can learn to sweep and mop. "Our Gabriel could hold a full-sized broom when he was about 3," Rosie said. "He loved to sweep, and he would sweep the corners and the edges. To this day he's like that -- very consistent and neat with the work he does."
"Mopping is another fun thing," she said. "If you want to be that daring, let a 4-year-old do it. Two of the boys mopped the whole kitchen for me one morning while I was changing the baby's diaper."
"First they watch you sweep or mop, back and forth, row by row," she explained. "As a mother, you need to speak out your procedure -- make a little chant or song to a rhythm -- and they learn with that. Then you let them do just a little, not so much."
Young children enjoy helping cook. "They like to get up on the kitchen chairs and help by stirring and mixing," Rosie said. "I get it started, and then all the brothers and sisters take turns. Then when it's done, everyone gets a lick of the batter from a spoon. So there's a reward."
Toddlers like to help parents or older siblings set the table, Rosie said. The older ones count out the forks and let the toddler place one at each plate. Toddlers and preschoolers help with many of the small steps involved in setting the table, like taking plastic mustard and ketchup containers from the refrigerator and setting them out on the table.
Preschoolers can learn to clear their own place after a meal as well. "When they're about 3 years old we have them start taking their silverware and plate to the sink to soak," Rosie said. "They shouldn't carry it all at once. They can go back to get their glass. It's a big help in a big family."
"Little ones love to pull weeds, and that's a good way to teach them the parts of the plant," Rosie said. "You see who can pull the plant from the root all the way up."
"One of their favorite things is piling leaves into the wagons or wheelbarrows and taking a ride in the barrow to the compost heap," she said. "We usually have two or three barrows, and the children have races."
Toddlers can water the lawn with a hose, too, Rosie said. "We let them take off their clothes. They get cooled off and play in the water, but do the watering at the same time."
Feeding pets and other animals
"Andrea likes to help her older brothers and sister put out fresh water and pour dry food into the animals' dishes and bowls," Rosie said.
Now is when to start discerning a child’s natural bent
From the time children are preschoolers you can begin to observe the direction of their personalities and natural talents through chores. “Some are the more careless type, and others are more precise,” Rose said. “The child who tears into the bathroom and leaves streaks of Ajax all over the sink and mirror is the one who is gifted at going outside and digging up a big hole two feet wide if you need it.”
“Watch and see who they are,” Rosie said. “It tends to come out in the area of chores.”
©Becky Cerling Powers 2020 Reprint with attribution only
For faith-based family stories to share with friends and older grandchildren, check out Laura’s Children: the hidden story of a Chinese orphanage and My Roots Go Back to Loving and other stories from Year of the Family in the Bookstore.
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