Projects that benefit the whole family, done by parent(s) and child(ren) working together, give a child a sense of being useful in the family. Feeling that he can do valuable work may help him to focus more on the needs of the family than his own needs and wants. We’ve found that Nicholas tends to be very calm and well-behaved when he’s helping us work–not always, and the effects don’t necessarily linger afterward, but in general having him help us is a good thing for all of us. He started helping with dishes, laundry, and cleaning around 15 months old.
The trick to getting a very young child involved in real work is to focus on doing it together. You can’t assign a chore to the child and go do your own thing and expect the child to complete the chore, much less do it well. At first you will be doing nearly all the work yourself but encouraging your child to be involved, talking about the steps in the process and the technique, giving your child an extra implement (dishcloth, spatula, small broom, etc.) to experiment with. You will not be able to do the job as quickly or efficiently as you would alone, but don’t make that comparison. Remember that in order to do this work alone, you would have to reserve it for a time when you are not the POD, so compare the time you spend doing the job with your child to the same amount of time doing something else with your child plus the time it would take to the job alone.
My parents did a great job of getting my brother and me involved in family work, and recently I found a list of these tasks (from when we were under 6 years old) that I made in an online discussion a few years ago:
*washing fruits and veggies
*tearing lettuce for salad
*baking: measuring stuff, rolling dough in balls, frosting…
*taking stems off tomatoes, strawberries, etc.
*sorting dirty laundry into lights and darks
*folding clean laundry
*dusting (“You do the low shelves, and I’ll do the high shelves.”)
*scrubbing bathtub, sink, countertop, wading pool…
*painting walls (“You can make designs in the first coat, but remember we will have to paint over them.”)
*moving things out of the way as parent runs the vacuum
*buffing shoes after parent polishes them
*removing beetle grubs from the freshly-spaded garden
*picking up the sticks and fallen apples before parent mows the lawn
*helping wash car and bikes
*”You set the table while I cook the dinner.”
*reading the numbers off the cancelled checks to help parent balance the checkbook
*washing windows–the best part was holding a screen (removed from the window) while a parent sprayed it with the hose!
*looking through the stash of empty plant pots for a bigger one to transplant each plant into; holding old pot steady as parent loosened plant with trowel
*helping to unfurl garden hose across yard
*holding the lamp while parent worked under the car, behind an appliance, etc.
*shredding or crumpling paper for packing material
*sorting the stash of empty containers for reuse
*organizing canned food by type and turning all the labels forward for easy reading
*rinsing, pulling labels off, and stomping on cans to be recycled
*putting all the dirty towels in the laundry and clean towels on all the towel racks
*helping parent get the bedspread or tablecloth on straight (eliminates the annoyance of walking around the bed/table again and again!!)
*choosing tablecloth and napkins and making a centerpiece when guests are coming to dinner
*asking guests what they want to drink and relaying orders to the kitchen
*taking guests’ coats to the bedroom
*picking up clutter, sorting it into a basket for each family member, and delivering baskets to bedrooms
*arranging flowers in vases
*pulling everything out of bottom of closet while parent pulls everything out of top, then helping to decide what to keep and how to organize it
*choosing clothes for vacation and laying them out on bed; parent then double-checks that everything is there and helps pack
*packing cat’s food and dishes before a trip
*reloading diaper bag (I did this for my younger brother’s bag when I was a preschooler. Nicholas as a toddler helped me pack his own diaper bag, by handing me clean diapers one at a time until I said stop!)
*helping make snack for an outing or parent’s lunch for work: spreading the peanut butter, putting the carrot sticks in the bag…
*choosing Daddy’s tie for church
*picking up trimmings after parent trims the hedge
*climbing through window to let in family when locked out of house! I was so proud!!!
Here’s a more elaborate but very cool example: When I was 4, my dad built a television from a kit. (That’s his idea of fun. ) He had all these tiny parts set up on the table, including about a million resistors–those little brown cylinders with colored stripes and a wire coming out of each end. I was fascinated. He could have fretted that I would grab some of them to play with and damage or lose them . . . but instead, he gave me the Very Important Job of sorting the resistors in order of their colored stripes! This was something he needed to have done (to make it easier to find the particular kind that went in each place) and it allowed me to “play” with the resistors without losing track of their purpose. It also allowed me to spend the next 15 years saying that “we” built our TV set!