At 14 months old, one of my son’s greatest joys is using a spatula. And while he does enjoy a good cabinet pounding, he has seen me using it for its intended purpose, and what he really wants is to flip those pancakes himself. He wants to work…because he’s a toddler.
But toddlers are supposed to be terrible, tantrum-throwing beasts, right? I’ve long hated the term “terrible twos” and never really knew why it struck such an ugly chord with me—but when I read that some other cultures refer to the dreaded toddler stage instead as a boundary-testing phase, it made sense. Our kids are not inherently bad or wild, they’re learning. Learning about gravity and consequences and limits and opportunities.
Opportunities to work, included. A toddler doesn’t see sweeping the floor as a boring or mindless chore. He sees it as a chance to hang out with mom and do something productive. He lives for the praise he’ll receive for helping and working hard. He can already feel that he is a necessary part of a dynamic, industrious household.
But we have to embrace that helpful power when they’re young. A child who learns early that being an integral part of the household is imperative and fulfilling will likely turn into a teenager and adult who feels and acts the same way.
Here’s part of the struggle: it’s 2018, I’m an American mom on the go, and my to-do list is the length of the toilet paper roll my toddler just unraveled while I was writing this sentence. How do I slow down enough to let my little one in on the chore train when I know it’ll take twice as long and be quadrupley as messy when he’s helping?
- Embrace the mess.
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He needs to know his help is real and valuable, not fake. Even a one-year-old will swell with pride knowing he contributed to washing the dishes, even if all you see at first is the slimy soap trail running down the counter. Let it happen, and have him clean that up, too.
- See it as a long-term investment.
If you want a 10-year-old who happily folds his own clothes without being asked, you better not be pushing him away from the laundry basket as a toddler. He’ll know that’s a mom job. Instead, let him be a part of what you already have to get done, and it will likely pay off quicker than you can imagine.
- Keep bribery out of it.
A recent study actually showed that kids were less likely to repeat a task if they were given a reward after doing it the first time. Pride in a job well-done is reward enough. And if you’re already past that point? Don’t try and rip away a rewards system you already have in place but find a way for certain contributions to simply be a part of the family dynamic, while others give the opportunity to earn an allowance.
- Invite, don’t boss.
Even young kids inherently resist being bossed around. Invite them into the interactions that involve chores. Make them fun, sociable activities and they won’t want to miss out.
Maybe it all sounds too good to be true, but the science is there to back it up: Put your kids to work early and they’re likely to happily contribute for years to come.