Pitching In: Toddlers Helping with Household Tasks, By Faith Collins

Pitching In:  Toddlers Helping with Household Tasks


The first time I taught my Tele-Class, Joyful Days with Toddler & Preschoolers, I spent the first call talking about all the benefits of involving children in your household tasks, inspired by my own experiences working with children in my LifeWays program.  I fired everyone up with enthusiasm, and sent them off with the assignment to invite their children to participate. 

The next week they all called in again, and I asked everyone how it had gone.  There was a long silence, and then one mom bravely shared, “Faith, I loved the idea, but when I tried to sweep with my toddler he spent the whole time sweeping apart the piles that I had made.  It didn’t work at all.”  Another woman chimed in, “Yeah, I tried to wash dishes with my three-year-old, but while we were doing it, the baby woke up.  I got her as quickly as I could, but when I came back there was water and soap everywhere.”  One by one, they shared how their efforts had gone awry, from children throwing laundry wildly around the living room, to not being interested in helping at all (the woman with the wild laundry throwers declared her experience a success, because at least her kids weren’t fighting while they did it).

OK, time for me to go back to the drawing board.  Over the next four years I refined the content of that class almost every time it was offered, incorporating the feedback I got from participants.  I finally started getting comments like this one, pulled verbatim from our online discussion:

“I have been folding laundry and doing the dishes with the kids and I actually look forward to it now.  Before I would just have the mindset of getting it done before the kids knocked over piles and would get upset if they did, but now we do it together and it is fun.…It is like we are part of a team and it feels like the day is a lot more seamless.  I am no longer figuring out ways to keep them excluded from tasks.…I have found that my house has never been cleaner or less stressful.”

Ah, that was more like it! 

Fast-forward to 2013, when I was getting my MA in Early Childhood Studies from Roehampton University.  I needed to do an original research project for my dissertation, and I decided to do it on…you guessed it, children’s involvement in household tasks!  I observed ten families with children ages 2 and 3, watching to see how much or how little they were involved, and what helped things go well or poorly.  It was so interesting and such an honor to be invited into people’s lives so intimately.  I discovered that different children have differing motivations for wanting to be involved, and that parents had different styles of how they interacted with their children during these tasks.  I discovered that the interactions that went the most smoothly were ones that the adult and child had clearly done together many times, and that these became quite elegant, almost like a dance where each person knew the steps.  In these interactions parents could be more expansive and not jump in when children made mistakes, and children could be more patient and not lose interest when parents made mistakes.

Finally, I saw certain actions that tended to help or hinder things from going smoothly.  Many of these I had previously seen in my work, but a few surprised me.  One surprise was that pretty much every time an adult said, “Do you want to help me (fill in the blank)?” before they started the task, the child almost ALWAYS said “No.” Despite this, many children actually would help if the parent then did the task in a slow and inviting manner; the problem was that many adults then did the tasks as quickly as possible (or not at all) when their children said they weren’t interested.

Instead of giving you a list of all of the things that helped or hindered, I’d like to share two interactions with you:  the first a fairly typical not-so-great interaction, and the second an interaction that was stellar. (If you want that list, then I invite you to sign up for my next Tele-Class, at  http://joyfultoddlers.com).  Let’s take a look.  The first interaction is between a Mom her son Derek, age 3 years 11 months (names changed, of course):

Derek (to Mom): ‘I want more.’

Mom: ‘You can have eggs or cereal.’

Derek: ‘Cereal.’

Mom: ‘What kind of cereal? You can have…’ she opens the cupboard and lists several kinds of cereal that she sees there. He chooses one, and she brings it over.

Mom: ‘Do you think you want to pour it yourself?’

Derek: ‘No.’

She sets the box down next to him, walks away to start looking at other cereal options to offer him. Derek picks up the box and pours the cereal in his bowl.

Mom (looking back): ‘Oh Derek, that’s ridiculous! That’s too much! We’ll have to pick it up.’

Derek: ‘Why is that too much to eat?’

Mom: ‘That will make your belly hurt.’

She scoops some away, then picks up the new box of cereal.

Mom: ‘You want to pour some of this one?’

Derek looks at her dubiously.

Mom: ‘You want me to do it?’

She starts to pour it, but slowly so that he can get involved if he wants to. Derek grabs hold of the edge of the box with two fingers, so that he’s ‘helping’ her, in a not-very-involved way. They pour together.

Mom: ‘OK, stir it up please. Yup.’

Mom: ‘Stir, stir, stir!’

Derek (stirring): ‘Does this look good?’

Mom: ‘Looks good.’

Derek: ‘Can I eat it?’

Mom: ‘You need some milk, silly.’

Goes to fridge, gets milk.

Mom: ‘You want to help pour it? Hold on with two

hands! That looks good.’

They pour it together.

Mom: ‘There you go.’

Derek starts to eat.

 So you can see that some parts of the interaction go well, but other parts fall apart a bit, especially where mom invites Derek to pour the cereal before starting and gets that “No,” and then thinks that he really doesn’t want to do it and is surprised when he goes for it when she goes back to the cabinet.  

Does this type of interaction feel familiar to you?  If so, keep reading to see a scene with a mom who has a few tricks up her sleeve.   This Mum in London, England cleaned her house so thoroughly with her son (who was only 2 years 3 months old) that it made me envious of her skills! In this scene they have brought his high chair out onto the deck and are washing it with soapy water and a spray bottle of cleanser:

Mum: ‘We’d better get your apron on!’

She steps inside to get a plastic apron and brings it out to Oliver. He holds out his arms and she puts it over his head. He immediately goes back to his task of cleaning his chair; he sprays with the cleaner and swipes at it with the brush, then sprays again. Mum joins him and they clean together, Oliver mostly spraying and mum scrubbing.

Mum: ‘Look, I see some noodles! What a mess we have to clean up!’ Then,

Mum: ‘Who sits in this chair? Who made this mess?’

Oliver (proudly): ‘Me!’

Mum (pretending shock): ‘You? This is your chair?’

Oliver: (grins widely and continues to spray)

A little later,

Mum: ‘Okay, one last spray and then it’s time to do some scrubbing.’

He sprays again and she starts scrubbing in an exaggerated fashion.

Mum: ‘Get down to the real cleaning now. Use your muscles. Put your back into it, that’s what they say!  Scrub-a-dub. Scrub-a-dub. Scrub-a-dub-dub.’

She starts hamming it up, scrubbing really hard. He starts doing the same, scrubbing really hard.

Mum: ‘Oh, I think I see a noodle! And there’s a bit of orange! Scrub-a-dub.’

They scrub together for a while.

Mum: ‘Oh, she’s looking better. She’s starting to sparkle!’

Singing: ‘Scrub, scrub, scrub-a-dub!’


Mum: ‘What about her ears?’ They scrub the top of the chair. ‘What about her feet?’

Oliver: ‘Yeah.’ They scrub the chair’s legs.

Oliver: ‘I’m washing her.’

He continues to scrub as Mum goes inside and puts on the radio to a classical music station. She comes back out, and he is still scrubbing.

Mum: ‘Is the sun trying to come out? I think it may be!’ She picks up a scrubber and starts singing a song about the sun as she joins him. They continue to wash together. After a while:

Mum: ‘Is she ready for a rinse now?’

Oliver: ‘No.’

Mum: ‘Let’s do our last scrubbing.’

They scrub for just a moment, then mum begins to rinse.

Oliver participates and does not complain. Mum picks up the chair, brings it back inside. Goes back out.

Mum: ‘OK? It’s been cleaned?’ Oliver nods.

Mum: ‘Good news!’

Oliver falls over onto his bum.

Oliver: ‘I’m wet now.’

Mum laughs and they head inside.

 What a pro this mom is! She’s not thrown off by the “No’s” that her two-year-old gives when she asks if he wants to do things, but instead she makes the new actions so engaging that he can’t resist joining in.  What else did this mom do, to help her interactions go smoothly?  She uses humor, imagination, singing, exaggeration, and more…in my dissertation I counted seventeen different moments in this one interactions where she does or says one of the things that support interactions going smoothly, and only two instances where she did something that tended to hinder (although neither of them actually derailed the process).   Could you imagine your experiences with your kids going more like this?  The next time you invite a child to help you with a household task, channel this mom and see if your time together doesn’t go more smoothly!

Faith Collins is the founder of Joyful Toddlers!, offering Tele-Classes, coaching and consulting for parents and caregivers.  Her next Tele-Class starts October 19th, 2014; for more information, visit http://joyfultoddlers.com