Me do! Me do!

Have you heard this once, twice or twenty-seven times in the past week? Then you may be the parent of a toddler eager to help around the house. Congratulations! Now's your chance to cultivate a helpful attitude in your little one to ensure it sticks around until well after they've learned proper grammar!

"It’s never too early to encourage children to be 'helpers,' " says Wendy Kittlitz, vice-president of Focus on the Family Canada's counselling ministry. "Industry is one of the developmental tasks of young children." Encouraging your child to chip in with chores is as much for their benefit as for yours!

To successfully guide your child through this stage of skill and character development, try these five tips to raise a helpful toddler.

1 Teach with the four As

"From an early age, kids can be taught – not required – to help mom or dad with household or yard tasks," Kittlitz says. When your son or daughter becomes curious enough to start contributing, keep these ideas in mind to maximize their success and minimize your stress:

Attentive

Even before some children are able to verbally express their desire to dive into duties, they will try to make it clear to you somehow, be it by pointing, fussing or simply starting to work. "A smart parent will watch for these opportunities to help toddlers learn skills through playful engagement," encourages Kittlitz. The more attentive you are in this regard, the less tantrums you may encounter!

Allow

This step is straightforward since it's natural for a toddler to want to mimic mommy and daddy as they work. As a parent, you simply need to tap into this inherent curiosity by allowing them to help rather than shutting down their efforts.

Action

Fostering a child's interest in your work requires intentionality. Share the whats, hows and whys of a job. Let them get a good look at what's in the mixing bowl or let them place their hand on the wheelbarrow handle as you push. In this stage of the learning process, slow, steady and sometimes not meeting your standards is the motto.

Attitude

Your child is picking up a lot more than just skills as they observe you work! They are also keenly aware of your attitude, which means you need to be aware too. Let your positive approach toward chores be an example that work can be enjoyable. 

2. Praise the effort

Your toddler has an inherent desire to form a positive self-identity. They want to be recognized as a helpful person by you and others.

At times, your toddler may be the first to put their helper-foot forward, intuitively pitching in around the house like mommy and daddy. But they can just as easily stomp that foot down, refusing to do tasks they previously enjoyed.

That's where you come in. Notice their efforts so they continue to view helping as a fun, worthwhile activity! Specifically, use descriptive phrases to praise your child's process. For example, "Thank you for putting your socks in the laundry. You're a great helper!"

Sometimes a toddler may invent their own tasks as a variation of the job mom or dad is doing. If you're doing yard work, for example, you may find your toddler collecting twigs, blades of grass and dandelion heads in a plastic bucket. Is that a necessary yard task? Perhaps not, but they are eager to engage in the chores and their industriousness shouldn't go unnoticed!

3. Work on the foundation of work: Organization!

You've likely heard the proverb, "A place for everything and everything in its place," often attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

Those words may not mean a lot to your toddler right now, but the concept can!

Organization is foundational to household chores, especially those that toddlers may be most helpful at. Dirty diapers go in this bin. Socks go in the bottom drawer. Forks are kept here in the kitchen and toy blocks are kept there in the box in the playroom. Get your toddler involved in organizing your home by asking them simple questions: Where does this sock go? Uh oh, this toy lion is lost; which bucket should we put him in?

Turn organization into a game! Try slipping one of your child's (clean) socks into the cutlery drawer and see if they can spot what doesn't belong! With a lot of encouragement and excitement from you, your son or daughter could be a tidying machine in no time.

4. Choose age-appropriate tasks

“Where training becomes potentially problematic is when parents turn playful, industrious activity into a power struggle or expect children to perform tasks beyond their level of development," Kittlitz warns. It’s paramount to monitor their interest and ability levels as they learn a new duty.

At first, if your two-year-old is having difficulty conquering a task or doesn't seem eager or excited to try, that may be your hint to save that job for later. You likely won't have to look far for another duty your toddler is more keen to do.

When they do show interest in chores, you can help your child practice and accomplish tasks without getting frustrated by catering the job to their age and ability. As the child develops, the task can too. For instance, a two-year-old can place their clean plate on the table before a meal; a three-year-old can add taking their dirty plate to the counter; a four-year-old could add wiping the table, and so on.

For some jobs you'll need to gauge the safety level as well. Perhaps your son is eager to help you plumb the kitchen sink. In this case, you don't want him rifling through your potentially dangerous tools. To keep your toddler, your tools and your house safe, provide him some toy tools, or at least some minimally destructive adult options such as a tape measure.

5. Help your helper – for your sake and theirs

Don't expect your child to work on their own. For them, half the fun is spending time with mommy or daddy! Even with a team of two, you and your toddler likely won't be knocking double the items off your to-do list, though. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you be productive while still engaging your child!

For some tasks, such as dusting or sweeping, it may be more effective if you get your toddler their own dusting cloth or broom. That way they can help at their own pace without you risking frustration over your lack of productivity.

You could also break tasks down into steps they can watch and steps they can help with. Kittlitz provides a laundry example: "Here are your t-shirts; let me show you how to fold them and then we will put them away together."

If you see your child struggling with a job you deem age- and ability-appropriate, try not to swoop in the moment they experience frustration. Monitor the situation before your toddler becomes overwhelmed. Kittlitz suggests "slowing down, acknowledging that he or she is becoming frustrated and then encouraging them to try again, perhaps with a bit more support." Ask them if they want mommy or daddy's help, then assist them with the particular portion of the task they are finding difficult.

For example, when a toddler is carrying a full dustpan to the garbage bin and is getting upset that they are spilling dirt, you can help them without immediately taking the pan away. Try showing them how to hold the pan with two hands, or by offering to steady the pan with one of your hands. "Then celebrate success!" reminds Kittlitz. This teamwork will empower rather than overpower their efforts.

Still think you can do the job faster and better than your kid? You're likely right. But their development in skills and confidence is vital at this age! Plus, a helpful toddler can grow into a helpful child – and that's when this early training starts to really pay off – for you and for them.

© 2017 Focus on the Family Canada (Association). All rights reserved.

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