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First Lessons in Responsibility for Toddlers

Hilary Benson

Published on: January 01, 2010

Teaching toddlers about responsibilitySome toddlers love vacuum cleaners, others love pots and pans. 18-month-old Taylor Kenoyer of Kirkland is fascinated by the refrigerator. His mother made the most of this attraction; one of Taylor's first lessons in cleaning up involved the fridge.

Megan Kenoyer says that for her son, putting his milk cup back in the refrigerator is not a chore, it's a treat. "Teaching responsibility at this age is really about teaching habits," says Kenoyer, a Mercer Island kindergarten teacher. "He doesn't know why it is his responsibility to clean up, but he thinks it is fun right now."

If toddlerhood seems too early to begin learning this mini-work ethic, many parenting experts will have you think again. In their book, Parenting With Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility, Foster W. Cline, M.D. and Jim Fay argue that early responsibility leads to increased self-esteem, "...a prerequisite for achievement in the real world." As your child becomes more competent, he becomes more confident, too -- a big payoff for lots of simple little steps you can take at home.

Be a good responsibility model

If you have ever dreamed of being a "supermodel," here's your chance! Just make your "runway" the distance from the kitchen to the dinner table, or the hallway between the laundry room and bedroom. Explain to your toddler exactly what you are doing when you are setting the table or putting away laundry. They will want to join you to "help," and in the process, they will learn how good it feels to complete a chore.

Of course, the time to work on early responsibility is not when you are putting away grandma's heirloom crystal. Think washcloths and plastic cups. At this age, things will probably get dropped on the floor. Make sure that it doesn't matter.

Some chores are best done by mom alone -- cleaning the bathtub, for instance -- but even those chores can be learning experiences for your toddler. Jean Westlake, the Early Childcare Manager at Seattle Central Community College, says parents should explain what they are doing, and why: "If we want to have a bubble bath tonight, we need to make sure your tub is squeaky-clean." The toddler learns about positive consequences for a job well done.

Be patient -- and realistic

When it's hands-on time, avoid showing impatience if your child is truly trying to help. A child who feels bad about his work may not want to try again. Put aside thoughts that you could do it faster by yourself. Remember that these little lessons are an investment that can pay off in the future, big time.

At Seattle Central's child care center, parents can watch their toddlers through a one-way mirror. Westlake believes this observation is important. "Sometimes parents' expectations are above where the kids are," she says. "We can explain what is age-appropriate."

Give your child choices

What is it that makes perusing a restaurant menu, or even standing in front of a buffet, so much fun? In a word: choice.

Toddlers like choices, too. If you let your child pick between having strawberries or bananas for snack, whichever food is chosen will be more appealing.

Cline and Fay believe that parents who make all the decisions for their kids are doing more harm than good. "Our noble intentions are often our own worst enemy," they write. By using a "consultant" style of parenting as early as possible in the child's life -- offering choices and asking questions about those options -- the burden of decision-making is on the child's shoulders. A child who feels trustworthy enough to make decisions is a confident child, empowered to be responsible for themselves and certain tasks.

Offer kids praise

Debbie Kray oversees programs and exhibits at the Children's Museum of Tacoma. In hands-on areas like the "Grubby Garden," and "Ready, Set, Go!" kids can do what they choose. At the end of the activity, clean-up is just another part of the game. A parent or teacher might say, "You did such a good job. Now we need to get things back where they were so another child can play."

When it comes to early responsibility, Kray and other experts recommend giving praise instead of rewards. Linking work to a reward such as candy or stickers, or trading for toys, can prevent a toddler from understanding that helping is the right thing to do. Besides, as Westlake points out, "Kids this young don't understand that five stickers equals a toy."

As Megan Kenoyer helps her toddler take baby steps towards being responsible, she gets daily reminders of how it will pay off in a few years. With 22 kindergartners in her classroom, those little lessons really add up. "I am thankful for the children who have learned responsibility," she says. "When all the toys are out, they understand that it is not my job to clean up after them.

Hilary Benson is a freelance journalist with three children. Her work has appeared in ParentMap, Seattle Magazine and on KING-TV.

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