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Children need chores. Helping out around the house teaches social and family responsibility. It gives your child a sense of accomplishment and pride and helps her learn practical skills. Contributing to the household also helps your child feel important, like one of the "team," while gently underscoring that she's not the center of the universe.
In the early preschool years, the real value is not so much getting things done around the house as it is instilling the helping habit. Two-, 3-, and 4-year-olds love to be helpers. Harnessing this natural impulse makes starting chores easy. As your child grows she can manage more complex tasks and start doing some independently.
Don't underestimate your child. Parents often underestimate what their kids are able to do. As their child grows older, they may fall into the trap of doing things for her that the child is perfectly capable of managing on her own, whether it's making her own sandwich or cleaning up her room.
Build on basic personal responsibilities. Brushing teeth, using the potty, washing hands, and self-dressing are the first "jobs" most kids have. Most parents don't think twice about assigning these personal chores. Household chores also need to be in the mix, though, to teach social responsibility.
Find age-appropriate tasks. If a job is too difficult, your child will get frustrated and be unwilling to follow through. Also skip assigning chores that involve dangerous objects (like washing sharp knives) or breakables (emptying glasses from the dishwasher).
At 2, your child should be able to:
- Place dirty clothes in a hamper
- Put a dirty diaper in the bin
- Pick up toys after playing with them
- Place napkins on the table
- Sort lights and darks for the laundry
At 3, your child should be able to:
- Sort socks by color or possibly match them
- Water a plant
- Feed a pet
- Clean up her own spills
- Get her own simple snack ready
- Remove her own dish from the table
- Help wash a car
At 4, your child should be able to:
- Set plates, forks, and napkins on the table
- Remove silverware from the dishwasher
- Fold towels
- Help make her bed (smooth out bedspread neatly)
- Remove wet towels from the floor
- Pour milk
- Help with food preparation
- Sweep with a child-size broom
Don't expect too much. Having a young child "help" may make your own chores take longer. Remember that you're setting the groundwork for the days when her contribution actually will help! All chores have a learning curve and preschoolers have short attention spans. Don't expect your child to follow through on chores every day without reminders – or to execute them well at first.
Keep it gender-neutral. Assign boys some of the kitchen chores, girls some outdoor jobs.
Be very specific. "Clean your room" is much too broad and overwhelming for a preschooler. Let your child know exactly what you expect ("Put your dirty clothes in the basket."). Show her how the first few times.
Don't overdirect. Announcing three or four chores all at once may confuse your child. She might forget the entire list or mix things up. Take it one chore at a time.
Keep it fun. The challenge with chores is that they tend to involve repetitive tasks. Once the novelty wears off, the drudgery kicks in. You can make chores fun for preschoolers by mixing up responsibilities from time to time.
Although your child is too young to read, consider a chore chart with pictograms that illustrate what needs to be done. Never underestimate the power of song for a preschooler, from Barney's "Clean Up" song to Snow White's "Whistle While You Work." Or make up your own silly tune about putting toys in the toy box or doing laundry.
Don't redo the chore the "right" way. If the napkins are crooked on the table or the bedspread isn't perfectly smooth, you can live with that, right? Show your child the way something should be done and then let her finish it on her own. Redoing a task deflates her pride and makes her less inclined to want to help. ("Why does she need me?")
Praise a job well (enough) done. Preschoolers thrive on positive reinforcement. Be encouraging, not critical, as she works. Afterward, let your child know that you appreciated her efforts and that they matter. Tell her so in concrete ways: "When you set the table, it lets me do the cooking so we can eat sooner."
Don't pay for chores. Most preschoolers are too young to understand the value of money. Money in exchange for work has little meaning to them. Many financial experts frown on paying for routine household contributions anyway. The best reason for an allowance is to teach kids concepts like saving and making financial decisions. Paying for work defeats the higher purpose of chores, which is to teach the value of contributing to the household and develop pride in a job well done.