How to get your preschooler to help with chores

Motivate your stubborn (or oblivious) preschooler to help you out with chores around the house.

Photo via @ourcityhouse on Instagram

My six-year-old daughter is a wonderful little assistant, from putting away clothes to setting the table. But her four-year-old brother would rather be playing with Lego instead.

This isn’t a surprise to London, Ont., parenting expert Andrea Nair. “This is the age they realize they have choices,” she says. “Before, we sang ‘Let’s tidy up,’ and they did what they were told. Now, they have independent thoughts—and they are being asked to do something that isn’t enjoyable. It’s a tough sell.”

A survey by World Vision Canada found 89 percent of Canadian parents believe kids should do chores. But more often than not, Nair says, we end up doing these tasks ourselves. “Many busy parents are rushing out the door, so they’re doing jobs their little ones should be doing. I worry we’re unwittingly creating older kids who won’t know how to do things for themselves.”

Richard Rende, co-author of Raising Can-Do Kids, says we sometimes unintentionally teach kids that chores are lousy jobs to dread. “Kids don’t inherently ‘know’ chores are ‘crummy.’ Kids actually like doing the things we label as chores. In our research, we have seen they are experiential, hands-on learners. They are natural helpers at an early age.”

Erin Kerr, a teacher at Liberty Prep, a Montessori school in Toronto, sees this daily with her three-, four- and five-year-old students. “Children love to water plants, put away puzzles and tidy up.” The Montessori method uses a step-by-step approach: When teaching them to clean the table, first demonstrate how to clear away dishes, then how to wipe the whole table. Waiting for children to master each step takes patience, says Kerr. “They might not be doing laundry yet, but they are on their way.” 

Most experts say chore charts don’t work. “The bigger issue is growing internal motivation,” says Nair. “The kid might complete the task to get a sticker, but if they are always looking for a reward, you set yourself up for problems. We must grow the internal feeling of accomplishment for a job well done or for a clean space. This is a great time to develop positive core beliefs that provide an internal compass.” 

Rende agrees: “Stickers don’t improve compliance with chores. Kids should learn we all do it together because that’s one way we all take care of each other.” 

Nair recommends using sequential statements. “‘When-then’ or ‘after-then’ phrasing is effective: ‘When your Lego is put away, then we can have a snack.’ Or, ‘After you tidy your room, then we can go to the park.’ Put on music, and give them a challenge: ‘Throw all the toys in that bucket before the song ends!’”

What are reasonable responsibilities for a preschooler to take on? “They can set the table, tidy their toys, put dirty clothes into a hamper, water plants, shovel snow and do basic cleaning,” says Nair. Set them up for success throughout your home by creating what Nair calls an “away spot” for everything: Have clothing racks and hooks low enough that they can hang up their own coats; put a tiny broom and dustbin under the sink; and arrange the lowest shelves of your bookcases with bins and baskets to keep things organized.

“Never redo their job or do it for them because they refuse, or because you’re late,” says Nair. “If parents constantly do something for you, you believe you are incapable, or you don’t have to do it, because someone else will do it for you.”

This sounds a heck of a lot like my university days, when I was always tidying up after my roommates. No wonder I’m exhausted. Tonight, as I sit down among the chaos, I’m resolving that tomorrow my kids are going to relearn how to clean up their act.

Did you know?
Richard Rende, co-author of Raising Can-Do Kids, argues that chores provide social, emotional and academic benefits over the years. “What kids learn in the kitchen carries over to the classroom, the playing field and the boardroom,” says Rende. One University of Minnesota study of 84 young adults found that those who were given chores at ages three and four were more likely to have good relationships and had a higher academic achievement rate, compared with those who weren’t assigned chores at all (or who were only given chores as older children).

Read more:
How to get your toddler to tidy up
10 ways to keep your toddler busy
Spring cleaning: How to get your kids to help

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