Young Kids and Chores

Dear Miss Faith,
Can you talk a little bit more about responsibilities/expectations/chores for 2-3 year olds? How do you go about incorporating young kids into household tasks, self-care, etc? What can you reasonably expect at different ages? When do you institute mandatory chores?
-E.N.
Dear E.,
These are great questions! As you know if you’ve read just about anything I’ve written, I’m a huge proponent of incorporating kids of all ages into household tasks. First I’ll talk about why I think it’s so great to do, and then I’ll talk about age-appropriate expectations.
Why Household Tasks are Great for Kids

The reason that I’m such a fan is threefold: first, when you slow down a household activity enough to incorporate a toddler into it, doing that task together can be a wonderful way to connect with your child. The two of you are doing it together. Second, doing household tasks are a wonderful way for children to practice skills and gain competence in many different areas: fine motor skills through folding wash-cloths; gross motor skills by putting dishes onto their shelf or sweeping the floor or washing the windows; sensory integration by washing the dishes or kneading dough. And by inviting a child into a task that you do from beginning to end, you are teaching him how to go about tasks: about follow-through, about attitude. Thirdly (and this is how doing household tasks together are different from doing arts-and-crafts projects), incorporating children into household tasks allows them to contribute to the household, and to help the person they love the most: you! That is really fulfilling for children. Although doing tasks with young children takes MUCH longer than doing it by yourself, making space for your child to be able to contribute to tasks that really need to be done sets the stage for them to be able to contribute in ever-greater ways in the future.
What to Expect At Different Ages
So, what are young kids capable of at different ages? When should it go from being something that you lure them into, to something that is simply expected? My experience is that adults tend to underestimate what one- and two-year-olds can do, and overestimate what three- and four-year-olds can do. What do I mean by that? Well, with the littler ones, we often simply don’t create the space or even have an idea of what a little one can do. Their skills are growing so quickly at this age, that we often treat them as an infant when they are in fact capable of much more. As young as 18 months, a young child can take her bowl from the table, scrape her food into a compost-tub, and put her bowl and spoon into a wash-tub. I had a class of 8 one- and two-year olds, and they all did this after every meal! When a child first came to me, I would stand behind him and help him reach out his hand to get his bowl. Then I would point out the compost-tub, and walk over with him. Kneeling behind him, I’d put my hands around his to grasp the spoon and scrape out the food. Then I’d point out the wash-tub and he could put his bowl and spoon in by himself. After five or six times of literal ‘hands-on’ help like this, most kids became quite competent!
Now, don’t get the wrong idea: some children require lots more than six times of ‘hands-on’ help, and all of the kids needed help sometimes, even those big almost-three-year-olds who had been doing it twice a day for almost two years. The fact that we ALWAYS did it after EVERY meal was a help, and the fact that everyone else was doing it, helped the new children learn quickly. We had a little song that we sang while we did it, which helped things go smoothly, and my assistant and I were always actively involved with the process.
So what can most two-year-olds do, if we teach them how and help them do it every time? They can help you make their bed. They can brush their own teeth while you brush yours. They can help set the table if we hand things to them and ask them to put them on the table. They can wash their own hands, if we are right there to help/talk them through it: push up their own sleeves, scrub with soap, rinse hands clean, turn off the water, and dry their hands on a towel. They can drink from an open cup and only spill sometimes. They can take their bowl from the table to the counter when they’re done. They can help wash the table with a cloth before/after a meal. They can help wash dishes if you don’t mind them getting wet. They can go potty with help from you. They can help fold laundry, put things away, unload the dishwasher, put forks, spoons and knives in the proper place in the silverware drawer as long as they can reach. What two-year-olds generally CAN’T do: many can take shoes or clothes off, but can’t yet put them on. Most can’t follow multi-part directions, unless they’re very simple and sequential (“please pick up your sock and put it in the drawer” usually gets the sock picked up, but they may need a reminder of the second part: “and now put it in the drawer. Thank you!”).
Three- and four-year-olds are much more competent in terms of what they are able to do. They are capable of doing many tasks, even fairly complex ones. However, adults frequently overestimate what child children of these ages can do. That’s because we assume that because a child is CAPABLE of doing something, they should be able to do it whenever we want them to. And that’s simply not the case. Just because your four-year-old is capable of putting on every item of clothing, doesn’t mean that you can simply ask him to get dressed and then go downstairs to fix breakfast while he does it. Chances are you’ll go upstairs ten minutes later to find his clothes still lying on the bed, while he’s playing with his fire-truck. In fact, even if you stay there with him and talk him through the process (“it’s time to get dressed and your clothes are on the bed. Where’s your shirt?”), he may well only be able to actually dress himself sometimes. Even though he’s CAPABLE of it, at this age he will only be ABLE to do it by himself sometimes. Some days those clothes zip right on, and some days you are doing almost every piece.
How competent children at this age are on a given day depends on how tired they are, how distracted they are, how distracted YOU are, and many other factors that we can only guess at. The trick at this age is to be fully present with them as they do a task, stepping in to keep them on track as much or as little as is needed, without getting mad that yesterday they did it just fine, and today they don’t seem capable of doing anything. That’s how things are at this age. The smoother and more consistent your support, the more and more frequently he’ll be able to do it on his own. If your support is inconsistent, so that he can go a long ways off-track before you direct him back to the task at hand, or your support is angry, or your support is rushed, then he will resist that “support,” and he’ll want to do the things you ask of him less and less.
When to Implement “Chores”
I am not a fan of “chores” for children under the age of seven. In my mind, “chores” are things you have to do whether you feel like it or not, and there may be some sort of punishment if they don’t get done. I don’t feel like this is appropriate for young children. Remember, in having children help with household tasks, we are setting patterns and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of helping out around the house, of pitching in, of feeling proud that they are contributing. So it’s fine to have tasks that you expect a child to help with, but it should always be something that you do together.
Warmly,
Miss Faith

Comments

  1. Dear Faith,
    i agree with you, Children at a very young age want ti feel vital. My son Oliver, who is 17 months, has been “helping” for quite awhile. with such tasks as folding or unfolding the laundry, cleaning up a spill, sweeping with a broom or putting items in their homes. We have such a rhythm here that even on the weekends he implements the daily rhythm of the child care. For instance today he was up on the step stool helping with the dishes when he finished there he went straight to the bathroom to brush his teeth!
    I love the way you write very practical and simple to understand.
    Warmly,
    Ginger

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