Letting Kids Help Is Hard Work

I came across an article a while back that examined why kids in many Latin American countries are far more involved in housework than American kids are. It painted some lovely and idyllic images of kids cheerfully pitching in around the house – doing laundry, picking up, making dinner – without even being asked! The secret, it seemed, was that mothers in those cultures involved their children in these tasks from a very young age. The children were invited to help long before they were actually helpful.

I have a deep and profound respect for those mothers, tinged with a healthy dose of parental guilt because I’m going to be honest here: having young children “help” around the house is so exhausting that I usually can’t bring myself to do it.

For example, my kids love to help bake and cook. Unfortunately, the only thing they love more than helping in the kitchen is fighting with each other and thus my attempts at culinary family bonding often turn into a wrestling match over who gets to crack the eggs. Keeping the peace can lead to moments of inattentiveness, during which someone invariably doubles the flour in a recipe or mistakes the salt for sugar. And by “someone,” I mean me.

I recognize that it’s a vicious cycle, of course. By not consistently involving the kids in basic housework from a young age, I then face an uphill battle when I introduce the concept later on. Trying to get my children to pick up their belongings and stow them in appropriate rooms and containers requires Herculean levels of effort. If I want the living room to actually be clean, I have to stand in the middle of the room, directing traffic and barking out observations. Shoe under the couch! Baby doll on the recliner! Half-eaten granola bar on the coffee table! Left to their own devices, my children will pick up a single toy then pronounce the work complete, resolutely gazing past the chaos that remains.

In fairness, I am not a tidy person myself so attempts to force my kids to pick up their belongings carry with them the unmistakable taint of hypocrisy. Put your laundry away, children (mine is all over the bedroom floor). Jackets belong in the hall closet (mine lives on the back of the kitchen chair). Don’t eat in the living room (pay no attention to empty cereal bowl on the end table).

Every now and again, some small person in the house will have a sudden yen to clean things and I’ll turn them loose with a Swiffer mop in the art room or ask them to sponge off the dining room table. Their interest usually lasts about fifteen seconds, after which they leave the soapy sponge on the floor for me to step on.

One of my children recently adhered my shoes to the floor using large wads of blue sticky tac. I can only assume this was a gesture of mercy, aimed at helping me in my ongoing quest to locate my lost footwear. If they’re stuck to the floor, at least you know where they are, right?

Sometimes, though, the stars align – the patience is ample, the children are willing, and you can come together to create something lovely. My older two children made dinner a while back, almost entirely by themselves. It was pigs in a blanket with fruit salad. They still talk about that meal, chins raised proudly with each recitation.

Or this weekend, when I realized that my son’s instinctive desire to smash things could be very productively channeled into breaking up dirt clumps left after roto-tilling the garden. I turned him loose with a garden trowel and his industrious whacking was legitimately quite helpful.

Sometimes the kids help around the house. And sometimes they help by staying out of my way while I cook or clean or do battle with the laundry. Depending on the situation, both types of involvement can be equally appealing!

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