It should be easy, right? To make lunch or load the dishwasher, to scrub some pots or clean the bathroom. These are tasks that, if you focus on them one-by-one, don’t take all that long. But depending on your child’s level of independence, or whether you rely on the television to do the babysitting while you work, it can sometimes seem impossible to get even simple jobs done around the house.
I’ve felt embarrassed when my wife’s returned home to a cluttered mess, cruddy dishes mounded in the sink, and dinner not prepped. “What have you done all day?” she asked me once. It’s hard to explain that playing with a kid can be like the mob in The Godfather – just when you think you’re out, “they pull you right back in.”
A few months ago a friend blew my mind when she told me about how her kid helps her clean. Not with nasty chemicals or strong soaps or anything like that, but a tot can wring a good deal of helpful fun from a wet sponge, she told me.
Since then, I’ve made my son part of the chore solution rather than seeing him as a problem. Give him a damp rag, and he’ll crawl around the edge of the room dusting the molding as he goes. Toss him a sponge, and he wipes off counters to no end. Provide him a spray bottle, and he’ll wet down the bathtub in advance of my scrubbing.
But don’t take my word for it. Scientists have found that, by and large, even very young kids want to be helpful. And now a study demonstrates that older kids are can be quite sophisticated in how they help.
You know how if your partner says, “Can you please pass me that knife so I can chop the parsley?” but you’ve just used the knife to cut raw chicken, you’ll find another knife or wash the blade before passing it along? You help, but not by literally following directions – you take initiative to help in the best way possible.
Turns out that toddlers, on the whole, do the same thing. Given two tools, one real and one play, tots knew that an adult would require the real tool to complete a task, even when the adult asked for the play one. So when a grown-up wanted a foam hammer to pound a nail, the toddler would fetch them an actual hammer, knowing that’s what they needed to get the job done.
This is called paternalistic helping, as in “Father Knows Best” (though why it couldn’t be called maternalistic helping, I don’t know). You think you want the play tool, but trust me, you actually want the real one.
It’s pretty cool that even three-year-olds demonstrate this behavior, though I imagine that for toddlers who are used to being active helpers, they might be more likely to speak up. (Another author wonders if the toddler’s level of autonomy within the family matters. Strict, authoritarian parents may encourage their children to not talk back or ask questions, which would affect their performance in the study.) Like with any toddler skill, practice makes perfect. The more my son helps me around the house, the better he is at completing his chores and the more excited he is to chip in, especially since I make clear how proud I am of his hard work.
So if you’re having trouble staying on top of the housework while minding your child, don’t see the two things as separate activities. Try getting your kid or kids involved. It’ll be beneficial for everyone!