Three guidelines for engaging preschoolers in chores (or, “Work is play”)
In previous posts, I’ve written that play is the single best learning activity for your preschooler and that playing doesn’t have to be an elaborate production with toys, rules, and undivided parental attention. One simple and effective way for parents to build on those two points is to involve their children in the real work of the house (in an appropriately accessible way).
Most parents recognize that children are natural mimics. We’ve all seen our children perform an earnest if imperfect reproduction of something they’ve seen us do, like talk on a “phone” (often a block, remote control, or something else vaguely rectangular), or put “keys” into a doorknob or car ignition. The obvious point here is that humans learn through imitation, but it’s also important to note that our children are imitating us because they want to do what we do. This fact is a gem hiding in plain sight.
Think back to when you first got your driver’s license. Do you remember how exciting it was to suddenly be able to go wherever you wanted? And do you remember how your parents took advantage of that? I have vivid memories of lunging for the car keys any time we needed milk; I was so excited by my newfound freedom and autonomy that I shed the usual teenage affectations of disdain and gladly took on tasks that my parents considered drudgery.
Our preschoolers are no different. The thrill they get from doing things on their own, performing tasks that big people do, and being part of the activity is a powerful motivator. And as Pulitzer-prize winner Jared Diamond has written, for most of human history the way children learned to be grown-ups was by behaving as grown-ups did. Parents today can support our children’s budding autonomy and competence (not to mention get more done) by treating our children as our apprentices in life.
At my house, chores like loading and unloading the dishwasher, taking out the trash, preparing food, setting the table, or folding and putting away laundry are family affairs. It takes my three-year-old longer to put away the silverware than it would take me, and there have been a few bags of recycling that didn’t quite make it into the bin on the first try. But there’s nothing quite like seeing a little trouper dragging a garbage bin larger than he is out to the curb and then beaming with pride at the accomplishment. And although you should probably plan to spend more time on chores when you first involve your little helpers, in surprisingly short order they will be able to contribute in meaningful ways, making everybody’s lives a tiny bit richer.
Three things to remember about engaging your preschoolers in chores:
1. Pay the short-term cost for the long-term gain: Yes, it will take longer to get things done the first several times you let your children help you. Yes, there will be messes. And yes, there will be tears of frustration (from at least one of you). But ask yourself: Do you want to be like the L.A. parents mentioned in this article from The New Yorker, tying your children’s shoes until they leave for college? Or would you rather wake up one Saturday morning to find that your three-year-old had gotten out of bed, gone potty, let the dog out, changed from pajamas to play clothes, and microwaved a bowl of oatmeal with milk and honey for his breakfast? (This is a true account. The boy had spilled a bit of milk when putting the oatmeal into the microwave, but he had also cleaned up the spill by the time his parents came into the kitchen.) Put in the time now to save yourself time later.
2. Choose tasks at the edge of children’s competence: A powerful concept in developmental psychology is the zone of proximal development, which is basically the set of things a learner cannot yet do independently but can do with assistance. This is the sweet spot for challenging our children. For whatever chore you are working on, find the step that you aren’t quite sure whether your child can do. An 18-month-old might be challenged by pulling socks from the laundry basket and matching them; a two-year-old might have a bit of trouble turning clothes right side out; a three-year-old might struggle to put shirts on hangers. Whatever it is, give your child that task, and be ready to assist (only as much as needed—a bit of frustration is good for the learning process). And as your child’s skill and confidence grow, be thinking about how to help less (in academic jargon, remove the “scaffolds” you’ve been providing) and challenge the child with more and more independent performances until, one day, they’re doing it all by themselves.
3. Praise effort and highlight growth: When your child succeeds, be sure to praise their effort (“You worked really hard on sorting those socks!”) rather than their ability (
“You’re a really good sock sorter!”). As this great book by my former professor Carol Dweck details, helping children to think of their achievements as based on skills that can be improved rather than fixed abilities that someone either has or doesn’t can have profound and long-lasting benefits. And when your child fails, as of course they will, it’s helpful to remind them of all of the things that they learned how to do (e.g., “Did you know that when you were a baby you couldn’t even walk? You had to practice and practice and practice, and you fell a lot, but now look how good you’ve gotten at walking!”). And as they master new tasks around the house, give them credit for their work and help them appreciate their own growing competence. They will feel like little rock stars, and you will be able to get dinner on the table a little more quickly.