We all want our kids to grow up to be responsible adults -- but where and when to start? Many experts say preschool is a great time to start having your kids help around the house... and the benefits go way beyond a tidy playroom.
"Assigning children household chores is one of the best ways to build self-esteem and a feeling of competence," says Elizabeth Pantley, Kirkland-based author of Perfect Parenting. "Regular chores establish helpful habits and good attitudes about work."
Beyond that, some chores even give kids the chance to practice the important skills they are already working on, like concentration, sorting, sequencing, categorizing, cause and effect, hand-eye coordination and motor skills.
Unfortunately, that tiny tidier can mean more work for mom or dad. "It's probably more of a hassle to make my 3-year-old, Emma, pick up her toys than to just do it myself," admits Jennifer Hofmann, from North Bend, "but I am hoping that she learns it's her responsibility to pick up after herself and not to expect others to do it for her. In the end, I hope she'll be a more responsible child for it."
So, how do you get a preschooler to do housework? First, make sure you choose chores that are appropriate for your child's age and abilities (see age-appropriate chores listed below). Preschoolers can handle one or two simple daily jobs, each taking less than 15 minutes to complete. And forget perfectionism -- or be prepared to do the job again when your child isn't looking.
Show and tell your child every step of the chosen task, then try doing it together. "The key for this age range is modeling tasks that children may imitate hands-on," says Briana Bennitt, executive director at Three Cedars School in Bellevue. "Children of this age will naturally want to be doing what the grown-up is doing.
"Parents should note that children will also imitate the manner in which adults engage in the activity," Bennitt adds, "such as peacefully humming, angrily scrubbing, working slowly, quickly, etc."
It helps to make chore time part of your family's daily routine. Laura Mackenzie, of Redmond, found that took some experimenting. "For a while, we were having our son, Connor, put his clothes in the hamper in the morning, but it just wasn't practical because it is a very rushed time of day for us," she says. "Since chores at this age require reminders and supervision, dinner time and bedtime work best for us, because we are all more relaxed at that time of day."
If possible, provide child-sized tools. "My 3 1/2-year-old daughter likes to cook and always makes sure to put her apron on first," says Seattle mom Kerstin Gackle. "She also likes to use her child-sized broom, mop, and rake. I think that having the right accessories makes it feel more like play than work."
Making chores fun
Another way to make chores fun is with games. Joseph, age four, gathers all the smaller trash cans around the house, waits while they are dumped, then returns them to their proper rooms. "Sometimes, one of us will race him," says his mom, Julie Kommavongsa from Covington. "Other times, we'll see how many he can get before we count to 10."
Carmen Hagios, a Seattle mom, says, "We usually make a game out of it or sing our 'clean-up' song." Her son, Andre, who just turned three, is supposed to help pick up his toys before dinner. "When he helps," she says, "I compliment him on how useful his help is for me and how great it is to work together."
Gratitude and praise are powerful motivators for preschoolers, who thrive on the positive attention. Some parents consider other rewards, such as sticker charts, snacks, allowance, or TV time. Decide what feels right for your family.
Hagios believes all children should contribute to family life by doing age-appropriate chores. "It helps them feel a sense of significance, belonging, and self-confidence," she says.
Teaching your preschooler to do chores will take extra discipline and commitment from you now, but someday you'll be glad you did. Mackenzie is already seeing results with her son, Connor, who started doing chores when he was four years old. She says now, at age six, "...he never complains about doing his chores. I find he is generally more helpful with other things around the house, too. I think this is because having chores gives him a sense of satisfaction from knowing he can be a truly valuable contributor to the household."
Laurie Thompson has two little helpers at her home in Bellevue.
Age-appropriate chores for kids
Elizabeth Pantley's ideas for age-appropriate chores for preschoolers
Ages 2 to 3:
1. Put toys away
2. Fill pet's food dish
3. Put clothes in hamper
4. Wipe up spills
6. Pile books or magazines
7. Choose clothes and dress self
Ages 4 to 5: (Above plus)
1. Make own bed
2. Empty wastebaskets
3. Bring in mail or newspaper
4. Clear table
5. Pull weeds
6. Use hand-held vacuum to pick up crumbs
7. Water flowers
8. Unload utensils from dishwasher
9. Wash plastic dishes at sink
10. Fix bowl of cereal