By Susan E Davis updated by Dr Robert Needlman
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It may be hard to believe that very young children can do chores, but children between the ages of 18 months and four years are actually ripe for learning about household jobs. That's because this age group is so enthusiastic about being like – and being liked by – their parents, the most important people in their worlds. The trick is finding chores that young children are able to do.

Preschooler see, preschooler do

While you'll start to see your child imitate you as you go about your daily chores when he's a toddler, this impulse comes to full flower in preschoolers. Sweeping the floor is great sport, sponging off a counter inspires earnest enthusiasm, and planting a flower is pure bliss to these eager helpers. Encourage this healthy imitative behaviour by letting your child work alongside you when you can; you can even buy child-size (and child-safe) tools to make it more fun (and a little easier) for her to perform his chores.

In addition to growing more competent at the chores they began as toddlers, such as feeding a pet, dressing themselves, and picking up their toys and clothes, preschoolers might be able to:

  • set the table
  • clear their own plates
  • help with some simple food-preparation chores
  • get their own snacks from small containers
  • help weed the garden
  • fold towels
  • wash plastic dishes and cups
  • dust and use a handheld vacuum.

Clean up many of their own their own spills and messes

Now that they're starting to help out in earnest, it can be tempting to start giving boys traditional male jobs, such as emptying the garbage, helping with outside work, or cleaning up the car, while assigning girls traditional female chores, like setting the table, dusting or helping to cook. Try to mix up the chores a little – it helps girls and boys develop a broader range of skills and interests, and may put one small dent in the intense gender socialisation they're likely to receive as they grow older.

Don't expect perfection

‘A job worth doing is worth doing well’ might be a popular axiom, and while it's good to encourage young children to take their responsibilities seriously, it's even more important to foster a cheerful attitude toward work – an attitude that is sure to evaporate with constant criticism. Yes, having a three-year-old set the table can mean that the napkins aren't folded correctly or that he suddenly decrees that Daddy and Mummy need to switch their customary seats. Toys may end up in exotic locations and clean clothes get heaped in along with dirty ones in the laundry basket. And everything takes much, much longer than if you did it yourself.

These natural tendencies can make it tempting to give up on chores for young children altogether. But even when your child's ‘help’ creates more work for you rather than less, it's good to encourage him to pitch in. Chores help children feel as if they're valuable members of the household, and provide basic lessons in responsibility. Regular chores also teach young children about the rhythms of taking care of a household. Besides, if you don't introduce the notion that chores are a natural part of family life now, when they're eager and open, you'll have a much harder time enlisting their help when they're older.

The fine line between encouraging and nagging

Try not to nag young children or use a belittling tone – that sets up resistance and a general sense that chores are onerous. Instead, prepare them for their new duties by talking about how everyone in a family needs to pitch in. This appeals to their desire to be included in family activities and to develop grown-up skills. Then make a chart that lists each child's jobs, using pictures, as well as words, to illustrate the chores.

If your child seems to lose interest in his job, you might try working beside him for a bit or cheerfully offer him the opportunity to pick a new one. Preschoolers, especially, need to make choices to feel powerful and may enjoy trying out different chores on a regular basis.

Most important, try to make jobs fun for young children. Jobs that incorporate play will get done with far less fuss than those that are seen as ‘work’. You can try pretending the forks and spoons are people going out to dinner on the dining-room table, for instance, or that the toy cars are going to sleep in their garage (the big plastic toy bin). Likewise, you can turn picking up toys into a counting game (‘Let's each pick up ten toys’) or into a colour sorting game (‘You pick up the red toys and I'll pick up the blue ones’). And it's perfectly fine for you to help out; your willingness to lend a helping hand will help him develop a helping hand, in turn, and teach him that it's all right to ask for assistance when he needs it.

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