A young mother cornered me in the grocery store recently and said: "Tell me in five minutes or less if I can get my 4- and 5-year-olds to help at home and how. It seems as if I clean from morning until night. I am frazzled and I need some ideas."
This mother can start now to train and expect her young children to help with that maintenance. She should not have to do it alone. I offered her five simple principles on which to base her beginning efforts.
--Let your little children help when they want to help. Find a way if at all possible. Fill a squirt bottle with a little window cleaner and let them polish the chrome in the bathroom. Put away the sharp knives and breakable items and let them wash dishes and play in the bubbles.
--Make it possible for the child to work. That means using unbreakable dinnerware and cups for a few years. At my house, I put the dishes and drinking glasses in the lower cupboard so my children can set the table and empty the dishwasher without adult help. A small broom may be needed for the child to sweep the stairs or the porch. Keep the bedding simple with only a fitted sheet and comforter. Put dangerous cleaning agents out of reach.
--When your children help, reward them. Tell them how much you appreciate their work. Remind your children how nice it looks so they will begin to take notice and like a tidy atmosphere. Make work fun. Play games once in a while, like pick up everything red, or call for a 10-item pickup where everyone picks up and puts away 10 things. Another idea is to make a simple chore chart and give stars as a reward when it is all finished.
--Make time for pickups. You must train yourself to give the children advance notice: "Ten minutes and play time is over." And then, see to it that they pause at the end of play to pick up and put away. Make "wrapping up" a matter of routine just like washing hands before and after eating. You don't want this tidy-up time to be such a hassle that it is not worth getting the toys out to play, but on the other hand, messes grow into monsters without the pickups. Look for a balance.
--Soon the children will be ready for a specific daily chore. At first it takes more time to teach the children and help them do the job than if you did the work yourself. Eventually, your efforts will pay off. Begin with simple chores like setting the table, carrying dirty clothes to the washer, polishing the bathroom sink, shaking rugs, unloading the dishwasher, matching socks, sweeping stairs or taking out the trash.
Choose a specific chore that will require less than 10 minutes of their time and then teach them how to do it. Parents need to be firm and consistent. See that the child succeeds at work. It will build the child's self-esteem and help you, too. Don't overload the young child with too many responsibilities. The young child needs adult assistance for a long time. Do not be impatient. Positive words of appreciation will do more than scolding.
Parents of toddlers are often frustrated by their interruptions. They complain that they are always on call, which is true. But you can learn to get things done. First, take care of the child's personal needs so that these basics don't become the cause of interruption.
Second, you can learn to get things done in little segments if the goal is well defined. Parents of little children need to accept their limitations. They can not do as much as an adult.