We all want our children to be collaborative team players who contribute to the order and tidiness of the family home, who do basic chores without constant bribery, threats, or nagging. We don’t want our kids to act entitled, or to expect others to tidy up after them. We want our children to grow to be independent, responsible, and contributing members of society.
If follows that if we want kids to help out, we have to let them practice helping us, right from the earliest days that they demonstrate interest in what we are doing. You know, those early days when “helping” usually means creating more work and cleaning for us than if we had actually just done it ourselves in the first place.
I don’t think that kids need to wait to learn how to do chores until they are developmentally advanced enough to have full control over their bodies and tools. If we wait until kids have fine tuned all gross and fine motor skills so that they can proficiently master chores without assistance, then we have missed a crucial window in which the desire to help is at full blast.
When we tell a child that s/he is too young or small to help us rake and bag the leaves outside, we extinguish the desire to be a yard work assistant. When we tell kids that we don’t want them helping to wash dishes because they make too big of a mess with the water, we rob them of both a sensory and service learning experience as well as a chance to see themselves as capable, helpful human beings. When we send them inside because helping with shovelling the sidewalk is making the job take too long, we take away their will to our snow clearing assistants, and thoughtful snow clearing angels for older neighbours. When we consistently shoo them out of the kitchen so that we can sweep the floor, it is certainly easier and faster in the moment to get the job done, but we send the message that sweeping is something only a parent does, and kids have no place trying to help.
As parents, we need to release our need for control and perfection, and let kids help, even when it makes us cringe inside. We need to let them sweep the kitchen floor with a sawed off broom or a tiny hand broom and dustpan, and swallow the urge to grimace at the dirt left behind. We need to let them use a small vacuum cleaner to clean up their crumbs after a snack, and fight the impulse to “just do it ourselves” or “redo it the RIGHT way”, so that we don’t undermine what they have just accomplished and discourage further helpful behaviour. We need to let them wipe surfaces with a damp cloth when they want to help wipe, whether or not the surfaces actually need to be cleaned. We need to let them use a small duster or cloth to dust furniture and walls when they demonstrate an interest in vanquishing cobwebs. We need to let them run around after us with a small shovel in the snow, feeling like they are also shovelling the sidewalk in winter and helping out their neighbours. We need to let them help us wash and cut fruits and vegetables using a butterknife (with hand-over-hand guidance at first) as they learn to enjoy both preparing and eating healthy foods.
It is certainly faster and easier to do things by myself. Sometimes time or circumstances require that I just get things done, but I am aware that I need to make a point of slowing things down and making space for Willow to learn and grow into a helpful and independent individual.
The truth is, kids are messy. So, so, so messy. Worthwhile play and learning makes a mess. Making and eating food makes a mess. Cleaning makes a mess. For those of us whose tolerance for disorder is low, mindfully allowing and working through the mess with young children requires faith in the “big picture” and intense focus on the endgame of a well-adjusted, self-sufficient human being.
I have faith that today’s mess will be tomorrow’s masterpiece.