This isn’t just about cleaning up the house. (Although that helps!)
When can we start introducing chores to our children? No one wants to end up with a teenager who can't do his own dishes, but when we're dealing with kids who are still drinking out of sippy cups, it's hard to know their capabilities when it comes to chores.
It turns out that little kids can do a lot around the house.
“As you become aware of your child's gross and fine motor skills, think about what chores they could accomplish," says Deborah Gilboa, MD, founder of AskDoctorG.com and author of Teach Responsibility: Empower Your Kid with a Great Work Ethic. “Chores help children learn to see themselves as people who help—rather than just people who are helped by others."
Dr. Tanya Kaefer of Lakehead University calls this the development of prosocial skills and behaviors, which is actually more important than the chores themselves—at least in the early years. As she says, “Really, it's about learning to be a helper."
How can parents and toddlers get started with chores?
Encourage helping behaviors in little kids by assigning tasks that are more like “sub-skills" than full chores, suggests parenting expert Alyson Schafer, author of Breaking the Good Mom Myth. “The key here is to look at both where your child is showing interest and where they seem to be developmentally ready," Schafer says. “Then just think about what the next step might be."
1. Reframe your child's skills
Think of all of your toddler's lovely habits: Throwing, pulling and pushing. Those can actually be quite helpful when it comes to chores! For example, Schafer says that if your toddler can pull toys off the shelf, he can also pull laundry out of the dryer. She adds, “Would I call this a child 'doing laundry'? No. But it's a sub-task."
2. Promote cognitive chores
Sorting is an important developmental skill many toddlers are already eager to practice—so parents should take advantage of it when it comes to chores. “A toddler who can match for a card game can organize a tupperware drawer or pair socks from the laundry or shoes by the front door and bring the pairs to the owner's room," says Gilboa.
3. New motor skills mean new ways to tidy up
According to Gilboa, 6 to 8 years old is a good age for kids to take ownership of folding their own laundry—but they can start helping with it much earlier than that. “A preschooler who can use a hockey stick or [can] arrange a doll house is ready to sort toys back into bins and put books by size on a shelf or fold towels," she says.
4. Manage your own expectations
Figuring out what we can expect from our kids is the first step to figuring out how to incorporate chores. The second step is managing our own expectations.
“If your 18-month-old is helping fold laundry, you're going to have more laundry unfolded than folded," Kaefer says—though she adds that's completely fine. Simply letting your toddler feel as though they are helping develops those prosocial skills. Major contributions to household productivity can come later.
5. Learn to let go
As kids get older, you'll probably want them to contribute more. In those cases, Schafer says we may have to relinquish the idea of the “perfect house" in order to teach self-sufficiency. “We have to be willing to have things be sloppier, go slower, and be done to a messier standard," she explains.
6. Don't immediately correct work
Children will—and should!—take pride in the ways they're helping around the house. But that can be replaced if they see you immediately swoop in to do a better job.“If you redo the work they've done it, they will see that the work isn't useful and stop doing it," says Gilboa. “When it's not done right the first time, get your child to work on it some more."
Whether you choose to let your child do the dishes or not, one thing is clear: Little hands are more capable than we think.