Toddlers are natural-born helpers.
They are also natural-born spillers, knock-over-er’s, slow-down-ers, and breakers of all things breakable.
So although their helpfulness is adorable, it is also super inconvenient.
So why should we consider having them do chores? Wouldn’t it be easier to wait a couple or five years until they have better control of their limbs?
The University of Minnesota completed an analysis of data collected over 20 years. They found that the best predictor of success in young adulthood was if they had begun doing chores as a young child or not. You can read more about that study here.
But the challenge is that children are most eager to help their parents when they are least capable.
For a young child, scrubbing, wiping, and doing dishes is a blast! But it’s a blast because it is MESSY!
When most of us are doing chores, we prefer to get them done with as little interference as possible.
We lovingly tell our children “Mommy’s busy, go play with your toys” as we gently shoo them out of the room.
The problem comes a couple of years later when the child is very capable of helping around the house and the parents excitedly announce that it is now time for them to learn to do chores!
The child is less than impressed by this new idea and usually protests loudly and often.
Let’s be honest though, I would probably be annoyed too if I was used to happily playing 24/7 and someone came along and told me that I had to work now!
It would be a pretty disappointing trade.
So how can we teach children to be helpful around the house without the argument?
And is that even possible?
Yes, it is. But you need to start a lot earlier than you think.
According to a npr.org article titled How to Get Your Kids to Do Chores, psychologist Suzanne Gaskins has found that we are doing our children a disservice by waiting until they are old enough to be useful to use their help.
She has studied Mayan villages for the past 30 years and found that their children are incredibly helpful around the house.
This is because they don’t think of their toddlers and disturbances to their work, but rather as an asset. Instead they harness the willingness and helpfulness of the toddler and use it as a time to teach them how to do the chores.
Eventually, over time, as the toddler learns to control their clumsiness, the child becomes invaluable to the parents who took the time to teach him.
How to Teach Your Toddler To Do Chores
That may work well for the Mayans, but we live in a different culture.
Can it translate for those of us living in a more western society?
It turns out that it can work well with toddlers across the globe.
Before we dive into the chore ideas, I’m going to give you the Five Rules I use when getting my toddlers involved in chores:
Rule 1: Start Them Young
As soon as my girls started walking I would have them help with basic things that I was doing. I use the term “help” quite loosely here. I was mostly looking for familiarity with the household rhythms and duties.
So between the ages of 12 and 18 months, I get my girls used to doing chores. It is a normal, predictable part of the day at our house. And it usually happens in the morning after breakfast, unless we have an appointment that we are heading to.
I start using phrases like “we work before we play,” “thank you for helping Mommy,” “it makes everyone’s job easier when we all help a little,” and “I need your help with ____________” almost every day.
It is important for them to learn that they are an important part of the family and they are needed and appreciated.
When your toddler wants to be right next to you every step of the way, grab an extra rag and have them “help.” They are usually more than happy to get involved and it’s a great way to channel their endless energy.
The best part is that they are learning life skills at the same time.
Rule 2: Let Them Help
Both of my girls would come to me and ask to “hep, hep!” before they could even speak in complete sentences. They wanted to be a part of the action. Especially if that action had anything to do with washing dishes, making bread, or spraying a spray bottle.
I always knew the job could take almost twice as long with their “help” but it was worth it to me to get them excited and involved with the work.
I can’t think of any job that they couldn’t at least watch me do. And most jobs they could play as small part in.
Rule 3: Enlist an Older Sibling
This has been the best way to get my younger daughter excited about doing chores. If my oldest daughter is doing dishes, my younger daughter runs to the sink and says “hep, hep!” frantically, like she is missing out on the most amazing activity in the world.
I sit her on the counter and she immediately sticks her chubby little feet into the water and grabs a measuring cup, or spoon, or anything else that her sister gives her and begins playing in the water.
Nope, she isn’t really helping. But she is learning the process of after we eat, we do the dishes.
The key thing here though is that she thinks she’s helping!
Research has found that it is important for children’s development to feel like they are needed in the family. We tell her “Thank you for helping!” and “Good job helping!” many times throughout the process.
*Disclaimer* Be sure your child can be safe on the counter before you put them on it. Teach them to stop when you say “no” first so you can be sure they won’t get too close to the edge. They could be seriously hurt if they were to fall off, so be sure they can understand how to be cautious, with your help and reminders of course.
Rule 4: Give Them a Piece of a Real Job
Children want to be helpful… and that means they want to take part in the work that is needed around the house.
Studies have found that having children do “fake work” (like re-sweeping a floor that was already swept) did not increase their desire to help. Instead, the children realized that the work was fake and went off to do something else.
My girls have both loved helping with real jobs. As soon as daddy walks in the door, they like to tell him how they helped Mommy that day and sometimes even take him to show the area that they cleaned “all-by-themselves.”
Rule 5: Don’t Use Rewards
I know, this makes me sound like a super mean mom.
Here’s the thing though, I want my girls to be motivated within themselves to be helpful, not because I’m going to give them a reward.
So, aside from chore charts that can be checked off if they wish, there are no stickers, pennies, goldfish, or any other reward currency in our house for doing chores.
It turns out that the Mayan mothers follow this rule too, so I think I’m in good company!
Chore Ideas for Toddlers
The important thing to keep in mind with your one-, two-, and three-year-old’s chores is to recognize any effort they put forth.
Remember, you are creating a habit of helpfulness, not looking for actual help cleaning your house.
The chore will probably take you twice as long as if you do it alone. Sorry to break it to you! But trust me, it will be worth it!
Here are some simple, practical chores that toddlers can do to help around the house to get you started:
1) Picking Up Toys
This is the perfect first chore for toddlers.
My motto is: as soon as they are old enough to dump the toys out of the bin, they are old enough to put them back.
One thing that makes this easier on our girls is keeping the toys to a minimum and only having a small amount out for them to easily access every day. Any additional toys are stored in a bin in the garage that they can rotate toys in and out from any time they choose.
If you feel like you have too many toys for your toddler to be able to put away on their own, consider decluttering your toys. Check out my post How to Begin Decluttering When You’re Overwhelmed and Stressed: 10 Steps for Getting Started Today for some decluttering tips.
2) Folding Washcloths
Around 18 months old, my girls were able to start folding washcloths. Whenever I was folding, I would pull all of the washcloths out of the pile for them.
They would carefully lay them on the floor and fold them in half, and in half again.
One time my friend who teaches toddlers at a preschool asked me to come in and do a talk for her class. During the talk, I showed all the kids how to fold washcloths to help their parents at home. Each one was able to do it with minimal instruction.
3) Putting Clothes Away
My oldest daughter (4) has the job of folding and putting away all the kids’ clothes in our house. She loves enlisting my younger daughter (17 months) to help her with putting everything away.
My oldest will generally fold one article of clothing, hand it to her sister, then take her to the proper place and show her how to put it away.
Yes, it takes them quite a while to do it this way. Yes, I could tell them how to do it more efficiently. But at this point they are having fun together, learning a process together, and frankly, it’s nice to have the little one entertained for so long… so I don’t micromanage.
4) Wiping the Walls or Floor
If you are cleaning the kitchen, hand them a rag and ask them to clean the wall.
Especially the wall by the trash can usually use a good scrubbing.
I also have them help clean up any time they spill something. Instead of getting upset with them, just have them help clean up and they will learn to be more careful more quickly.
5) Helping Clean the Mirrors and Counters
When I’m cleaning the mirrors and countertops in the bathroom, I hoist my younger daughter up onto the counter and hand her a rag. She happily helps me spray and wipe.
Spraying is a great way to teach kids to listen. I will tell my girls where to spray and how many times to spray. If they decide not to listen, they lose the fun of spraying for that day. It’s only had to happen once for each of them because they love spraying so much!
*Disclaimer: Please make sure your child can be safe on the counter and listen to instructions before putting them on the counter!*
6) Doing the Dishes
Like I explained above, doing the dishes is my younger daughter’s chore of choice. If she could sit beside the sink and play in the water all day, it would be time well spent in her opinion.
No, of course, she doesn’t do this all by herself. Big Sister or Mommy is always close by to tell her not to get too close to the edge.
No, she doesn’t do the dishes. But she is learning to be involved in the work that her sister and I do.
*Disclaimer: Please make sure your child can be safe on the counter and listen to instructions before putting them on the counter!*
7) Closing the Cabinets
Yes, I know this isn’t an actual chore, but it can make a toddler feel like they are helping and keep them busy while you are cooking.
Often at the end of the day when we are all in the kitchen together working on a meal, my younger daughter is happily walking around closing all the cabinets that I have left open (I have a bad habit of this, just ask my husband…)
It makes her feel like she is part of the action and has an important part to play (which is kind of true since Ross will often run into the cabinet doors that I leave open and bang his knees or head on them).
8) Starting the Dishwasher
After my oldest daughter loads the dishwasher, she helps her sister start it.
My youngest gets to help put the soap in and close the door. We have an old dishwasher so she can’t quite turn the dial and set it to wash, but she pushes it in to start it when her sister has it ready for her.
She gets the biggest smile on her face when she hears it going!
If you have a newer dishwasher, show them how to push the buttons by themselves!
Any time you are dusting, give your toddler a rag. They will probably also want to dust the couches, the floor, the ottomans, and anything else with a flat surface.
But once they realize the dusting oil, they will stick close to your side wanting to spray.
Dusting the piano was one of the first real chores that my oldest daughter was able to do all by herself.
10) Working in the Garden
I don’t think I need to convince you how much toddlers like the dirt or tell you how excited they will be if you ask them to play in it!
When we weed the garden we get my younger daughter involved. She usually takes the weeds we pull over to the yard waste bin for us.
Her sister usually helps her get them into the bin, but she walks them over to the bin all by herself (which is the important thing in any toddler’s mind.)
11) Starting the Microwave
Toddlers love pushing buttons! Any time my toddler sees me putting anything in the microwave she runs over to help.
I help her push the right buttons while I tell her what they are. Before long, I’ll just have to pick her up and she’ll know what to do!
12) Feeding the Pets
I don’t have any pets so I’m glad I asked my friend, Megan if her daughter had any favorite chores. At their house, feeding the dogs and cat is her two-year-old’s job.
This is a fantastic way to teach kids responsibility and the repetition of chores because, well, animals need to eat every day.
Especially if you want your children to remember to feed their pets when they are older, start them young!
I’m pretty sure her little one won’t remember a time when she didn’t feed the animals since she started so young, and I doubt she’ll ever think to complain about it.
You May Also Enjoy Reading
Our 10 Favorite Toddler Books That Parents Will Enjoy Too, this is a list of my favorite toddler books that keep my toddler’s attention, without making me lose my mind when I’ve read them 10,017 times!
How to Hike With Your Toddler: 15 Tips for Teaching Your Toddler to Love Hiking will teach you everything you need to know about how to hike with your toddlers!
If you struggle to keep your house clean with a toddler running around, check out My Simple Weekly Cleaning Schedule: The Routine That Took Me From Overwhelmed to In Control.
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