Kaspar mixes (brown rice flour) pancake batter.
A friend of mine, who’s in her fifties, confessed to me the other day that she’s “domestically challenged.” (I’ll call her Sally.) What she said is true, too—her house is a mess of piles, clutter, pet hair and unfinished projects – and, despite seeking help in any number of forms (talk therapy, hypnosis, organizational consultants), she’s continues to struggle to keep her home environment tidy and clean. What caught my attention about her commenting on this, other than feeling a little surprised that she’s consciously aware of it, was her own perspective on why keeping her home clean and organized is such a challenge for her (she lives alone, except for the pets). She vividly recalls her mother discouraging her, as a child, from helping with any household tasks. Her mother wanted things done a certain way, and with four kids to juggle, she refused to allow her littles to thwart the progress she made as she undertook the (surely endless stream of) household chores. “I wasn’t allowed to help, so I just never learned to keep house,” Sally says, now decades later. Sally remembers her mother fondly,  as well, and although she doesn’t have children herself, she can now appreciate the level of stress her mother must have managed with a household full of small children. But I’m guessing her explanation of the source of her own domestic limitations is likely accurate, and it struck me as an important one that I need to bear in mind as I go about parenting Kaspar.
The all-important job of taste-testing.
Juggling work and parenting is a constant dance in our house; both are high-touch activities for us, and household tasks get done in fits and bursts as we go through our days—we throw laundry into the washer between work calls, tackle the dishes before running out the door, sweep the floor when something gets stuck to the bottom of our feet. We’ll occasionally clear an entire weekend day for deep cleaning, or hire a green cleaning service to do it for us, but our usual cleaning routine is ongoing and not ‘routine’ at all. Piles do pile up, but we don’t let things get out of hand. We're not OCD about it – because with a two-year-old in the house, we’d be unable to cope -- but both Aaron and I value a clean, uncluttered home as most conducive to calm minds and overall happiness. (I’d feel instantly depressed arriving home to a house like Sally’s.) So while neither of us particularly gets off on cleaning (how I wish), we try to stay on top of it, prizing efficiency above all. Until recently, anyway.

Enter: Kaspar. He can undo twenty minutes’ work in two, all in the name of ‘helping.’ And let’s be honest: this can be frustrating when folding laundry is not a top ‘priority’, (deadlines and bedtime loom) yet still needs to be done.  As Sally recalled her mother stopping her from participating in household tasks in the name of their more efficient, or effective, accomplishment, though, I could see and hear myself in her description. “Kaspar, please stop! I just folded all of that,” – I’ve said this many times. I’m not a jerk about it, but I definitely don’t always incorporate Kaspar into the chores I’m trying to do.  If he’s clearly making a mess of them, and if I catch myself feeling exasperated, I’ll usually leave the job half-done and move our little operation into a  more play-friendly setting outdoors, or amidst toys in another room. But as Sally told me her story, it dawned on me that Kaspar really wants to help, with lots of tasks, and that I’ve been going about it all wrong. I should encourage his “help”, whether it’s really helpful or not.

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Slicing strawberries.
What hit me, in a flash of insight, while talking with Sally was that while being a mom is not my only job – and laundry is just one among a running list of priorities – it is my most important job. It’s unquestionably my top priority. Allowing, and encouraging, Kaspar to fold (which may actually mean completely un-fold) all of our clothes is more important than my finishing the task efficiently: It gives him a sense of true contribution, participation and accomplishment. It nurtures his sense of self-confidence. Over time, it develops skills that will help him to create a positive environment for himself in the future.  As an article one of his Montessori teachers recently shared with me elucidates in detail – confirming my suspicions about the whole subject of kids and ‘chores’ – participating in household tasks actually nurtures Kaspar’s cognitive development and sets him up for greater success down the road. The laundry is not the real job that I’m doing when folding with Kaspar in the room. The real job I’m doing is raising this boy. I know that the way I respond and speak with him is the way he’ll think and speak to himself, and I want him to feel capable, confident and open to trying whatever tasks he discovers before him, throughout his life.  
Adding apples to the batch.
Since that conversation with Sally, instead of redirecting Kaspar’s attention when he attempts to help with a task, I’ve found ways for him to help. For example, he’s already been helping me to put chunks of fruit and vegetables into our juicer every day (and I’ve already discovered that he’s far more eager to drink the finished product when he’s been a part of making it), but now instead of asking him to wait for me to finish chopping everything before he climbs onto a chair to assist me, I’ve hooked him up with a butter knife and a cutting board of his own. Our strawberries end up rather roughly chopped, but a) we’re going to juice them anyway, so it doesn’t matter, and b) the focus with which he works on chopping them, and the pride that shines from his eyes afterward, transform the ‘task’ into an enriching opportunity for growth and learning. The end product doesn’t really matter.  In the same way, mixing pancake batter for breakfast on Saturday morning takes ten times as long when Kaspar’s doing the mixing (and taste-testing), but it’s transformed through his involvement from a quick task into an extended, fun, family-friendly activity that we all enjoy more deeply. Since incorporating him means I must pay attention to each step in the process, too – through discussing and demonstrating -- it brings me fully into the present moment, and reminds me that life is not just about checking a series of to-do’s off a list. Aaron and I are sharing in experiences with Kaspar, making memories, living more deliberately and consciously. Letting go of the imagined need for perfect results (like neatly folded laundry) also means that we’re living more playfully, and with lighter hearts.

Another friend of mine, whose daughter is five (and who lives in a clean, orderly home… No hoarder tendencies there), told me that the patience and attention we put in on this front now will pay off later, too, in the form of real help around the house. Her daughter loves to mop and sweep the floor, fold laundry, and clean her own room. She continues to derive pride and satisfaction from doing these ‘chores,’ and she actually does them effectively... Which makes for less work for her mom (good-parenting perk!).

I’ve found that one of the biggest challenges in involving littles in the work they so want to participate in around the home is that standard mops, brooms and vacuum cleaners are way too large for kids to maneuver easily. Thus, they become frustrated and things get broken. High-quality, functional “practical life” tools that are sized appropriately for kiddos solve that problem, and are worth the investment; most parents might be surprised at how excited their kids become when these items are given as birthday or holiday gifts instead of flashy, throwaway toys. This website offers a great selection.

Anyway, Kaspar’s hard at work in our home, things are a little more messy than usual, and we’re loving every minute of it. My perspective has definitely shifted. I hope, when he’s Sally’s age, Kaspar will not only keep his environment pleasant, but that he’ll enjoy doing so, and will remember the fun we’re having now as he takes part in our daily cooking and cleaning (non-)routines.

How do you involve your small children in household tasks? What modifications have you found most helpful in enabling them to truly contribute to a job, and safely?

Enjoying the finished product.
06/26/2012 10:05

I can relate to "Sally". I too am domestically challenge, maybe not as much as her, but I never learned how to clean properly growing up. My mom did not discourage me but never expected her children to do household chores. Therefore I never asked to. I am in no means blaming my mom, she is a loving and wonderful mother, but she was a stay at home mom and felt the household chores was her job and we should enjoy being kids. She was the oldest daughter of 7 kids and often took care of the house and younger kids because her parents owned a business. So I think because of this she never wanted to "burden" us with chores. Now don't get me wrong...I did not just lie around the house and do nothing. I kept my room clean, hung up my clothes after my mom washed and folded them. I mowed the backyard while they mowed the front, I took out the trash on occasion, washed the cars in the summertime, and helped out with cooking when I was older.

When I got married I had to quit my job and move and it was the first time I was on my own. I know this sounds silly, but I decided not to jump into a new job right away and enjoy being married and learn what it takes to be a housewife. HA! So I took to the internet for a checklist of keeping the house clean and I got into a pretty nice routine. Now, I'm not the cleanest person...I kinda go at it half a**ed unless someone is visiting.

Now that I have a 1 yr old and work part-time nights and weekends it is hard to keep the house spotless. But I try. J likes to get the Swiffer out and push it around and I let him. He also likes to put the dirty clothes in the washer and take them out of the dryer. I let him...even though it can be frusturating when most of the clean clothes end up on the floor, but at least he is interested and I hope he keeps it up. He also puts his toys away and picks trash up off of the floor. I am not going to force him to do chores, but if he enjoys doing some of them then more power to him!

06/29/2012 12:49

Thanks for sharing your perspective Crystal! It's so interesting how your own mother's experience growing up influenced yours, and now that affects how you approach chores with your own child. It sounds like you have a good level-headed approach figured out. But yeah, this definitely confirms to me that my own take on Kaspar's involvement will indeed stay with him, and manifest itself, in his life long after he's grown. Thanks again for sharing!


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