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Assigning chores to your toddler might well seem like a chore in itself. After all, a 2-year-old isn't going to be the neatest or most efficient worker. But giving your toddler even the tiniest measure of responsibility now will pay off later by laying the groundwork for future good habits. Plus, having a chore to do makes your child feel like part of the family, someone whose contribution is valued. When assigning chores, keep these pointers in mind:
Pick tasks that are appropriate to your child's age. Be sure to choose simple, straightforward jobs, since your toddler simply doesn't have the cognitive ability yet to break down a large project into its components. Tell him to go clean his room, for instance, and you're likely to be met with a blank stare. But he could be responsible for one part of the job, such as putting his clothes in the laundry basket or helping you pick up all his toys. And define chores loosely: putting his bowl and spoon on the table before dinner could constitute a chore, as could putting his toothbrush back in the holder.
Toddlers want to be just like Mom and Dad, so capitalize on your power as a role model and let your child work alongside you as an assistant. Hand him a sponge while you're cleaning the kitchen and let him wipe off the table. You'll find him quite willing – even thrilled – to be called on to help.
Keep instructions low-key. Before your child takes on a chore, demonstrate it for him, talking it through as you go. For example, you might show him how you sort light and dark clothing into different piles before you wash it. Remember, at this age, chores shouldn't be so complicated that they require a lengthy explanation. Anything that takes more than a minute to explain is probably too difficult for your toddler to do anyway.
Stand back. When your toddler first tries a task on his own, be patient. Jumping in too quickly to lend a hand gives him the message that you don't think he's capable. And never belittle his efforts. If you want to offer a suggestion, do it kindly: Instead of saying "No, that's not right," try "You're doing a great job sorting laundry. I like to put the brown socks in with dark clothes, though, since they're a darker color."
Make helping a habit. Get everyone into a routine by doing chores at about the same time every day. For instance, your toddler's jobs might be to put his pajamas away in the morning and pick up his toys every evening before bed. You also might try designating a particular day of the week as cleaning day and giving your toddler a bigger job, such as helping with dusting or sweeping.
It helps to post a list of household chores and who has to do them. This way your child learns that everyone in the family contributes to the smooth running of the household. Since your child won't be reading for a few years yet, look for a ready-made chore chart that uses symbols instead of words to represent chores (a broom for sweeping, a dish and dishtowel for dishwashing). A star or sticker next to a completed chore is an ample reward, along with plenty of praise for a job well done. And remember to adjust your child's chores as he grows.
Whistle while you work. Getting to spend more time with you is one of the biggest incentives for your child to do chores, so don't send him off to work alone until he's older and more experienced. Even if his job is to pick up the Legos in his room, stay nearby and chat with him, or join in with your own task. He'll appreciate your company, and you can encourage him if he loses his focus. Make his job easier by providing easy, accessible storage for his playthings such as clear plastic bins for toys.
Chances are your child will think a job like sweeping is actually fun – especially if he has his own child-size broom and dust pan. So if you happen to view housekeeping as drudgery, don't let on. Make it a race ("Let's see who can get their toys into the box first") or sing silly songs together.
Be sure to tell your child what a great job he's doing and remind him how much he's helping you out. You can also point out the benefits of his work; if he's helping you wipe the kitchen table, you might say something like "Now it will be clean when we sit down for dinner." This gives him a sense of accomplishment and shows him just how significant his contributions are.
Don't expect perfection. No child is going to perform every chore willingly every time – and certainly not a 2- or 3-year-old! Just like grownups, kids have other things they'd rather do besides housework. If you need to issue a reminder, try to be friendly and matter-of-fact. Nagging almost never works. Instead, simply say, "It's time to put away your toys. Then we can read your bedtime story." Part of the purpose of having chores is to develop a sense of initiative in your child, so try not to micro-manage. Recognize that the task won't be done perfectly at this age – and it doesn't need to be.
And above all, keep in mind that your child has a long, long time to learn to do chores. If it takes a few months for him to get in the hang of helping out, that's okay. It's a skill he can use for the rest of his life.