A wise grandmother I know recently had an unfinished quilt set up on flames in her home, and some of her friends were coming to help with the stitching. Before they arrived, her small grandson asked to help and she allowed him to put the needle in and out a few times until he was satisfied. Not surprisingly, his large and crooked stitches were considerably below the standards of even the most amateur quilter.
When the friends began to arrive, one of them noticed the grandson’s clumsy work and said, “I guess we’ll have to pull all that out before we can go on.”
But another woman who sat down to begin the needlework saw the boy’s stitches and said, “Oh my, isn’t there some way we can frame in that section? It’s just too precious to leave out.”
I think this incident is a good illustration of the value we might see in children’s efforts to help with tasks at home when we understand and accept the limitations that come with their small size and lack of experience.
The fact is, the capabilities of pre-schoolers often do not equal their enthusiasm for the job at, hand. A young child’s attention span is generally very short; some tasks are unsafe for children to attempt; some require better quality work than children can manage; and sometimes time is too short for you to explain patiently how a job should be done.
Too often, therefore, we fall into the habit of telling children, “No, you can’t help with this now—just run along and play.” And then, as one frustrated mother summed up the problem, “By the time they’re old enough to help, they don’t want to anymore!”
But that isn’t a trap we have to fall into. Even after time, safety, and abilities are taken into account, any family can find ways for children, even very little children, to participate in household work.
First of all, by considering what skills are developing in a child, an adult can gauge what jobs he may be capable of doing.
For example, most babies are born with the capacity to clench their fists tightly, but it takes about a year for them to learn how to open their hands and release objects. This is an easy stage of development to recognize—especially at mealtimes, when it seems that children delight in dropping spoons, bowls, bread, cups of milk, and anything else they can get hold of. Some parents refer to this as the “elevator stage,” because so many things go down and have to be picked up again.
One way to take advantage of this newly developed skill is to have them drop toys into a box. Children learn very early which box or trunk or bag or drawer is used to store toys, and they find out by themselves how to take toys out; but putting them back requires some adult help. Sometimes the child will have to be handed the toys one by one, and then have his or her hand guided to the box to drop the toy in. In terms of actual work accomplished, the adult helping will probably put away most of the toys. But even in putting away only a few, the child learns to do the job and to enjoy it. And in time he will be able to do the work all by himself.
It is especially valuable, whenever possible, to let children help with work that directly affects them, such as cleaning their rooms, folding their clothes, or dusting their furniture. This helps give them pride in the completed project and a greater sense of caring for the items they use.
Before they’re even big enough to open drawers, small children can be handy carriers, and can put things away too. They can take clean laundry to the proper room—towels to the bath, dish-cloths to the kitchen, and so on. They can carry items purchased on a shopping trip to the room or closet where they are to be stored, simply leaving them on a counter, the table, a chair, or even the floor until someone older can put them away. In this way, the child learns to help and is repeatedly rewarded as he or she returns to say, “I did it,” and is told, “That’s very good. Now can you take this to the bathroom?”
Whenever furniture needs to be moved or rearranged, children can be of real help in moving small, lightweight objects—especially if you can make the work seem like fun. One mother who needed to move a bookcase lined up her own two preschool children and the six others who had all arrived to play, and gave each a small stack of books to carry to a neutral corner. The children took to the task with sheer delight, setting the books down and quickly returning for more. In ten minutes the bookcase was empty and ready to move. The children went outside to play for half an hour while the woman moved the empty bookcase, vacuumed, and straightened the room. By then, the children were ready to help again and carried the books to the new location, the older ones helping arrange them on the lower shelves.
The kitchen is frequently the work center of the home, and there are many chores small children can help with there. Three-year-olds can break lettuce for salad very easily; they can scrub vegetables if you’re willing to do a bit of touch-up; and they can also learn to use some kinds of peelers and graters safely.
They can help set the table, especially if an adult puts the plates in place and then gives the child the number of spoons that will be needed and says, “Put one of these by each plate.” The process can then be repeated with knives, forks, napkins, and glasses. Similarly, they can help clean up after dinner, putting paper napkins in the trash or carrying the dishes to the sink.
Children are fascinated by water, and assignments that can be made to look like playing in it can be a real hit with small laborers. They are more than willing to spread water on the kitchen floor, slosh it around, even wipe it up again with rags. From their point of view, scrubbing the floor can be fun. Children can also wash dishes, if they are unbreakable, and silverware, if it isn’t sharp. Even quite small children can water plants if someone older helps them judge the quantities. They regard all these tasks as playing in water. They won’t be fast or efficient, but it is work they can do.
Given a rag and one other magic item—a plastic spray bottle—a child will gladly clean fingerprints from door flames, low cupboards, even walls and windows. Depending on the size and style of the pump handle, most three-year-olds and some younger children can make the bottle squirt, a source of delight and initiative to work. For more efficient cleaning, soap or detergent can be added to the water. Whatever is added, though, needs to be safe if swallowed, since small scrubbers become very thirsty at times and forget exactly what the water in the bottle is to be used for. The solution should also be safe for contact with eyes, since the squirting is often misdirected.
One of the simplest ways to help children work is to keep a supply of rags in a convenient place—in a bottom drawer, in a large paper sack on the floor of a broom closet, in a box behind a door, or near a wastebasket. If children know where these rags are and can get them easily, they learn very quickly to clean up many of their own messes—such as spilled milk, or water that overflows a sink when a toy boat splashes. Such training can save a great deal of wear and tear on mother, father, and the family’s good towels.
Another important thing to remember is that many jobs require tools of various kinds; and just as an adult likes to have the right tool for the right job, children need tools they can use too. Brooms, rakes, hoes, shovels, hammers, saws, and many other tools are available in sizes that children can use. One family, after purchasing two child-size snow shovels, was amazed after the next storm to find that their two boys, ages three and five, actually cleared an entire sidewalk with no adult help.
But one caution: when you do buy tools for your children, get real ones, not toys. A saw that won’t saw or plastic pliers that won’t work will only discourage a child and force him to abandon what might otherwise be good learning experiences. Real tools, on the other hand, can be valuable investments in developing children’s work habits.
Simply arranging a few things in the house to match children’s sizes can further aid in their ability, and hence their willingness, to work. For example, children may not be able to hang up their own clothes in regular closets because the bar for the hanger is too high. This can easily be remedied by suspending a heavy dowel or broom handle from the bar already in the closet, and by providing hooks or nails low enough for hanging up coats and sweaters.
A stool that little ones can stand on to reach countertops and other hard-to-reach places is another device that helps them adapt their small size to larger tasks.
Having small children help with outdoor work can be an enormous success simply because it involves dirt, possibly the only element equal to water for sheer fascination of children. Any yard project that involves digging, raking, or hoeing dirt is likely to attract them. Children can help in spading a garden spot for planting, and they can pull weeds—although they may need a lot of help in distinguishing the weeds from the snapdragons.
When you stop to think about it, there are dozens of ways to find good outlets for children’s natural early enthusiasm. If children are allowed and encouraged to work to whatever capacity they have, their contributions can be genuinely significant and they can develop good work habits at the same time. If the work is also done with some imagination, you may find that, as one neighbor observed of a family busily engaged in collective labor, “Those kids don’t know work isn’t fun!”