As toddlers gain more independence, they genuinely want to help as much as they can. Embrace it. It gives them a sense of agency and control that they feel they need, and it encourages positive helping skills that will make them better helpers as they get older and can actually helpfully contribute.
It’s not easy. Many household chores are easier to do with out a “helpful” toddler getting involved. They go faster, and the results are cleaner. But really, is it better to have a happy, engaged, confident child, or a perfectly spotless home? When it gets stressful just remember what they’re learning and the long-term habits the activity encourages. Ms. Ashley’s grandmother used to always say, “As long as it’s cleaner than it was, we did a good job.”
There are definitely things toddlers can do effectively. Here’s a short list and some tips:
Put toys away— This is something that by two-and-half most children should absolutely be responsible for. If they’re reluctant, turn it into a game. “Bring me blue blocks” “I see a fire truck, can you bring it here?” If the room is particularly messy you can turn it into a sorting challenge, as categorizing things is a cognitive skill they are developing at this age.
Set the table/Wipe the table— Unless you’re serving the queen, it’s probably okay to let your child put plates and forks on the table before dinner. It won’t be pretty, but it will keep them busy while you wrap things up in the kitchen. After the meal, give your child a wash cloth dampened with soap and water, and let them wipe things down. It may not be perfect, but it will be cleaner than it was before. The kids often do this at school, and it’s always something they enjoy.
Make their bed— As kids move from cribs to toddler beds that big-kid step can become a great way to show them responsibility. Now, don’t expect military corners and smooth blankets, but your child is fully capable of laying the blankets out relatively neatly and arranging any pillows and lovies in an orderly fashion. It’s also a good gross and fine motor challenge for them.
Washing toys— Toys get grimy, like everything else. Many are dishwasher safe, and if that’s what you want to do, let your child help arrange them on the racks. If you really want to make it a big activity, set up two wash buckets outside, one with soap, another with just water for rinsing, and a beach towel for draining. Let them give their toys a bath. It might get wet, and the toys might not be perfectly clean, but they will have fun and it will be an improvement.
Kitchen help— Reinforce recycling lessons by letting your child gopher food packaging from the counter to the bin. They can dump pre-measured ingredients into the bowl. They can help you mix. With clean hands, they can enjoy cookie dough the same way they do playdough, then decorate with sprinkles for a special treat. They can help you pour juice into molds to make popsicles too. The limits are as big as your creativity and patience, and fostering that love of food leads to healthy life-styles later in life. (Kids are also more likely to eat something “yucky” if they had a hand in making it.)
Pre-schoolers who have a little more skill can do even more things.
Laundry— Ms. Ashley’s first chore was folding the towels. I can still remember spending quite a long time trying to get them just perfect, so my mom would tell me what a good job I did. When the dryer was empty, I got a quarter for my piggy-bank or an extra piece of candy, my choice. I also liked to help my mom sort clothing before the wash, and was made responsible for putting my own clothes in the right drawers since before I can really remember.
Sweeping— It may not be perfect, and fans of Snow White may have more fun pretending to be a princess than actually working, but kids can definitely use a broom. When the piles are ready to be scooped, let them help. If you have a hand-held vacuum and a little one that doesn’t mind loud noises, let them clean the floors and furniture. You’ll be surprised how much they like doing it.
Dusting and Washing Dishes— I put these two together because they share the same concern— breaking things on accident. However, if there’s a sink full of plastic and metal, or a bookshelf that could use some attention, let your child help. It will take longer, and it likely won’t be perfect, but again, they will enjoy it and the attention you give them during the process.
When you consider what to let your child help with ask yourself the following questions:
- Can they break something valuable?
- Will they get hurt? (cleaning chemicals, broken glass, heights, etc.)
- Is this something I will eventually expect them to do as they get older?
As long as the chore fits your answers appropriately, let your child give it a try. Especially when it’s something you have to get done, and your toddler is demanding attention. Helping solves both problems.
As you give your child responsibilities, it’s also a good time to think about what kind of rewards they will get for chores as they get older and to begin introducing those concepts if you feel it’s appropriate. Some families feel that daily chores are simply a given. Others offer an allowance regardless of whether or not chores get completed. Some pay an allowance based on good behavior, or completion of daily chores, with bonuses for extra work. It’s entirely up to you and your family, but starting early builds habits that last. Rewards also do not have to be monetary, candy, small toys, extra screen time, can all be considered valuable to a small child.
Basically, while your children want to help, let that desire set the foundation for the helpfulness that may not be so much fun for them in a couple of years. Supervise and praise, encourage and teach. Use it as a time to bond and connect. These are life-skills and habits, and you can rarely start encouraging those too early.
Ms. Ashley and Ms. Bri