Help Your Toddler Declare Independence (and get some help around the house too!)

Last night, we came home from the pool to eat dinner and head to bed, but it felt like every single step of the process was a cause for toddler drama.  First, Beach Girl was sad because she “never ever wanted to leave the pool” and then she changed her mind to say: “I never wanted to go to the pool anyway. I wanted to stay home.”  As Beach Dad and I pulled our hair out – failing to make her laugh or to encourage her to be more pleasant for even a minute or two – we quietly asked each other, “What do we do to help this go more smoothly?”  Feeling desperate as we finished dinner, I braced myself and asked her: “Would you mind please helping me carry the dishes over to the sink?”  She perked right up and – I kid you not – smiled as she diligently carried each dish from the dining room table to me, as I stood at the kitchen sink, and then excitedly ran back to grab the next ones.

I’d like to say that the rest of our night went perfectly smoothly (it didn’t), but we did note a significant difference in her attitude after we gave her the chance to help around the house.  Strangely enough, our two bright spots in the night both revolved around chores.  As she put away the clean silverware and as she carried over the dirty dinner dishes, she took breaks from her over-tired toddler stubbornness to positively assert her independence and to help out our family, all while she smiled and chatted happily.

In my developmental psychology class in college, I learned that, after the most basic needs of food, water, and shelter are met, all humans most need a sense of belonging and a sense of significance. While this is true for babies through the elderly, toddlers tend to wear those needs on their sleeves! Of course, toddlers will never tell us they would like to be included more or given a meaningful task.  Nevertheless, when they feel they are lacking in one of those areas, they are sure to let us know.  Many, many experts I’ve read have said – and my own experience has shown – that the majority of toddlers’ behavior problems are rooted in feeling insignificant and/or like they don’t belong.

To help develop her sense of significance, I’ve tried to find as many ways to help Beach Girl (who will be 3 in September) assert her independence and develop a sense of contributing meaningfully to the family. This has taken a good amount of consistency, patience, and remembering not to complain about housework (I have to present a positive attitude about doing dishes if I want her to eagerly pitch in!). But, it’s now been over a year since we started leading her in some of these activities, and we all have enjoyed their many benefits.

When she is misbehaving, I often feel funny asking her to perform a task. I feel like I’m imposing child labor of some sort when all she really wants to do is sulk. Frankly, it’s pretty counter-cultural in the United States to give chores to a 2 year old.

I’m often worried she’ll revolt against the tasks I give her and it will create even more tension between us. I’m sure we’ll reach that stage as she gets older, but so far, almost without fail, when I am able to give her a meaningful task, her mood drastically changes. She jumps to it and helps out and then finds other ways to contribute too.

I really enjoy seeing her delight in her sense of purpose and thought I’d share some of the things we’ve done to help her find healthy ways to exert her independence:

1. Put things at her level as much as possible.  We have a low hook in our coat closet where she can hang her coat and we keep her clothes where she can reach them to get herself dressed.  I don’t care what clothes she wears each day, and she’s really benefited from having complete freedom to choose her own clothes and to get herself dressed each morning.  There are so many areas where she is still dependent on me for anything she wants, but if she’s cold, she can go grab herself a sweater.

2. Set up a cleaning station. We keep rags, a spray bottle filled with water, and a little broom and dustpan under our kitchen sink, so that Beach Girl can clean up whenever she’d like to.  One of her favorite activities is to clean our windows with the spray bottle and (added bonus!) using the spray bottle develops hand strength, which will help her learn to write later on.

3. Prepare meals and snacks.  Kids as young as 18 months old will love to help pour ingredients into the bowl and to mix along with you.  Beach Girl’s favorite thing to make lately is pizza.  We make the crust and then she adds the sauce and cheese.  She is incredibly proud of herself and loves knowing that she “provided” dinner for her family that night.

4. Laundry.  Beach Girl loves to run around the house and find any dirty laundry we may have missed to toss in the washer.  When they’re clean, I take the clothes out of the washer and hand them to her to put in the dryer.  She takes this job very seriously, shaking each piece of laundry before putting it in the dryer.  She also loves to clean the lint screen and helps fold small towels and pillowcases.

5. Help with dishes. Beach Girl loves to put away the silverware, diligently asking me “is this fork big or little?” as she makes sure to put each piece in its proper compartment.  Most recently, she has started to carry our dinner dishes to the sink, like she did last night. As part of my goal to go to bed earlier, we realized that if we clean up from dinner before we put the girls to bed, then Beach Dad and I can still have meaningful hang out time before our own earlier bedtime.

One night last week, after she carried the dishes over, Beach Girl grabbed her spray bottle to wipe down the table and then moved on to scrubbing the high chairs too, without us even asking.

Amazingly, just like last night, having her clear and clean the table has regularly improved the rest of our bedtime routine.  She (usually) happily runs from cleaning up to brush her teeth and get her pajamas on.  I never would have expected that!

I guess we could call this a list of “toddler chores”, but the purpose of these tasks (at this age) isn’t as much to have help around the house as it is to give her ways to contribute. The key for me in having her do these jobs is to remember that it is all about process, not product. These are just fun activities for her to experiment with, not something that she can do “right” or “wrong”. She actually is incredibly helpful (most of the time), but getting extra help isn’t my primary goal.

I don’t expect her to do a chore the way I would ideally like it done.  She often puts her shirt on backward or soaks the carpet as she sprays the window with her spray bottle. I need to just appreciate her increased independence and let her do what she wants to do with these tasks.

And, if she learns how to sweep the floor and do the laundry in the process, then we are just that much better set up for her to help out in a meaningful way when she is older!


2 thoughts on “Help Your Toddler Declare Independence (and get some help around the house too!)

  1. Andrea July 9, 2012 / 11:16 pm

    Another great post! Love the pictures, she looks soo happy!


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