How to Get Preschoolers to Help with Housework

There are various methods for teaching a child how to do household tasks and motivating her to be involved in the daily work of maintaining the family home. One that’s worked well for me is this: Show the child how to solve a problem she created, and then extend her new skill into routine maintenance.

Our five-year-old Lydia has a beautiful, antique set of bedroom furniture that was a gift from our friend Sharon, who had inherited the furniture from her grandmother and used it as a child but didn’t have a place for a single bed in her current home. The bed frame, dresser, powder table, two mirrors, and rocking chair are made of wood with a really lovely finish that somehow survived Sharon’s childhood in excellent condition.

Yesterday, I saw that Lydia had stuck a sticker right on the front of her dresser drawer. It wasn’t even an image of a favorite character carefully placed in a decorative position–it was a reply sticker from some junk mail, stuck randomly on that beautiful varnished wood.

Of course my first response was to gasp, “Lydia! You must never stick stickers on furniture!” She claimed she hadn’t known that. I said we had told her before. She said she didn’t remember that. I said, “Now you know, and you need to remember it! Stickers can really damage furniture, by pulling off the varnish or by leaving a sticky spot.” She said she was sorry.

I turned on a bright light and carefully slipped my fingernail under the loosest-looking corner of the sticker. To my relief, it peeled off without removing any varnish. But there was a spot of adhesive residue. I went downstairs and returned with a spray bottle of furniture polish and an old sock. I had to work at it for several minutes, using lots of the oily polish and rubbing hard, to dissolve and remove most of the adhesive.

I was angry and frustrated! It was the second time that afternoon, and at least the fifth time in the past week, that I’d had to clean up some kind of mess Lydia had made that was not an accident but resulted from her doing something that she really should have known we just don’t do! (For example, the previous incident was drawing on the wall of the front porch with a felt-tip marker. Luckily, it was a water-soluble marker and it was outdoors where I could spray it with the hose. But we don’t draw on walls!!!)

As I was working, I remembered that I was around Lydia’s age when my mother informed me that it would be my job to polish the table and chair legs before a dinner party. My parents’ dining room furniture has carved wooden legs with some dust-catching surfaces, and I remember crawling around down there happily cleaning all the legs and then looking out into the living room and realizing that the end tables might need polishing, too….

Lydia was watching over my shoulder as I stroked the drawer front with my fingertips to see if I could still feel the spot. “It’s still a little bit sticky,” I explained, “but I think this is good enough. Remember, no stickers on furniture! Now, while we have the polish here, you can clean the dust off your bed frame.”

I showed her how to spray the polish on the cloth and wipe away the dust. “See how nice that looks? Your small fingers will be able to get into that groove even better than mine. Here, you try it.” She polished the whole headboard and footboard.

She was very thorough and didn’t overuse the polish. I stood by, praising her work.

And then she said, “My bedside table could use polishing, too.” There was a lot of clutter on the bedside table, so I talked her through taking everything off the table and thinking about whether it should go back on the table (in which case, put it on the bed for now) or get put away. I helped to put away about half of the things.

She was polishing the tabletop for a long time, trying to make it look its best. (That table, which is not part of the furniture set, was water-damaged a few years ago when a potted plant overflowed. You can’t make it shiny again, but it does look better with some oil rubbed into it.) I went away to do other things. Eventually Lydia came in with the polish and rag and asked me where to put them. I explained that you can throw away the dirty rag, you twist the spray bottle to OFF and put it in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, and then you wash your hands to get the dirt and polish off them.

When we went into her room before bedtime, I pointed out that the things that were supposed to go back to the bedside table were still on the bed. Lydia arranged them on the table. Then she went into the bathroom to brush her teeth. When she returned, she clasped her hands and gave a little sigh of satisfaction at the tidy table. I said, “You made it look so nice! It’s easy to find our book on this neat, clean table.”

In summary, here are the steps to the “problem as opportunity” method of teaching a task:

  1. Identify the problem. (This doesn’t have to be damage caused by rule-breaking; it might be something like, “There are too many toys on the floor.”)
  2. Briefly explain why it’s a problem.
  3. Begin implementing the solution immediately. If you’re angry, and/or if the solution is tricky (for example, I didn’t just rip off that sticker haphazardly), do the work yourself until you see how your child can help.
  4. If a rule was broken, repeat the rule. This emphasizes that, although the problem can be fixed, we don’t want to have this problem again.
  5. Explain what your child can do. This might be direct remediation of the problem, or it might be a related task. Do your best to give calm instructions about how to do a good job instead of making this task feel like a punishment. You want the child to help with housework whenever it needs doing, not just when she’s made an unusually bad mess.
  6. Give positive feedback if the child is doing the task correctly, gentle correction if it’s not going so well.
  7. Be supportive if the child is interested in extending the task to a wider area and it makes sense to do so. (If you don’t have time for that now because you need to go somewhere, explain when the child will be able to clean the other thing and how glad you are that he’s going to do it.)
  8. When the task is done, explain how to put away tools.
  9. Reinforce positive feelings about the accomplishment.
  10. Keep in mind that your child knows how to do this task, and request that he do it the next time it really needs doing or he needs something constructive to do.

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