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The Real Benefit of Chores

How young children can learn to enjoy chores and help around the house

My son has never leafed through "Martha Stewart Weddings." He doesn't care one whit that his newly invented "pinwheel rollups" are a commotion of cheese and tortilla rather than the dainty spirals one might imagine. All the boy cares about is that he's made a snack for himself and his little sister. "Ta da!"

Kids want to help — or can be made to want to, at least, with a bit of finagling on the part of savvy grown-ups. When I visit the Amherst Montessori School, just down the road from us, it's snack time there too, and the youngest preschoolers are studying bananas like rocket science. One tiny girl in dark pigtails tries to wrangle one out of its peel, and the naked fruit skids to the floor like an eel. She opens her hand, and her fingers are spackled with banana pulp. Once she gets it onto the cutting board, the banana's remains are sliced, mounded into a bowl, and devoured with relish.

This "I can do it myself" lesson extends beyond snack time: Children from 18 months old to just under 3 cheerfully hang dish towels and sweep the floor, and down the hall, in the classroom for kids up to age 5, dishes are being washed and silver polished. Adult caregivers mill around, of course, demonstrating a new task or clarifying a familiar one, untangling one boy from an apron's Velcro tentacles and offering encouragement. But their real work has been in the setup, and now they stay out from underfoot. The kids are doing their own thing, and because nobody has alerted them to the fact that housework is drudgery, it's not.

"From the time you're tiny until you're old, you need to be needed," the teacher, Alice Charland, explains, gesturing from the snack table to the low sink where a boy is resolutely scrubbing dishes. "It's what makes you feel empowered. It's what makes you a person."

Of course, these same empowered little people just might arrive home and promptly orchestrate a whining medley of chaos and lethargy. The group culture of a classroom no doubt helps kids to help — a child notices that the other children are doing chores, and wants to take part.

Still, you can Tom Sawyer your children into pitching in with tasks at home too if you tap into your kids' particular passions: the dirt of the garden; the wet of the sink; the joy of dumping (beans into a pot, weeds into a wheelbarrow) or sorting (dirty laundry or clean silverware); the soothing pleasure of repetition (sweeping, slicing, dusting). Not to mention the happy imagining that every recipe begins: "Take one stick of softened butter and poke your thumb into it, then plunge your hand into the flour canister before bending down to tickle the cat." The path to independence is neither straight nor especially tidy.

The philosophy that a child's independence can and should be fostered may be most distinctly realized in Montessori schools, but obviously it's not unique to them. It happens in countless classrooms, including at our local Waldorf school, where the overarching pedagogy differs and the children are more likely to sport woolen leggings and names like Aura or Winter. Here I watch two small kids washing dishes with much laughter and play. When they experiment with splish-splashing broad puddles onto the floor, a passing teacher simply hands them a dry dish towel — I make a mental note, here, of the absence of an exasperated sigh — and they wipe it up. Despite such diversions and giggling, what do you know? The dishes get washed. Not that the word sterile leaps to mind. Not that the teachers aren't grateful they get to go home and pull clean wine glasses from the dishwasher before opening a nice chilled chardonnay. Not that children's joy precisely translates into cleanliness. But the dishes are clean enough.

There's nothing magic going on. There are the right tools for the job (small, specific, functional). There are tasks organized around a child's size, skills, and interests. There's patience in the teaching of work skills and habits, and sufficient time to get the job done. And above all, there are occasions to rise to.

I confess that I don't bake spelt bread with my kids, like the Waldorf students, or let my children suds up the good crystal, like the Montessori ones. And sometimes I have to remind myself that before he pierced his ear and got all hunky and useful, Mr. Clean was probably lying on his parents' linoleum floor whining, "Can't you just do it yourself?" But there are plenty of opportunities for kids to show what they can do — and they may surprise you by doing it. My thirsty toddler would prefer to pour herself a drink from the small pitcher than wait for me to wait on her, and when she cries over her diaper change, I ask her to please do me a huge favor and get a wipe out of the box — and her mood almost always changes from flailing misery to solemn pride. Ditto my 6-year-old, who is often frantic before dinner, flaking apart like a piecrust while I'm stuck stirring at the stove. If I give him a job — a real job, like washing the lettuce or pulling herb leaves from their stems — he tends to settle into happy concentration. Instead of feeling needy, he now feels needed.

Helping out builds more than self-confidence. So many tasks hone the very abilities young children are already working on: concentration, fine motor skills, and hand-eye coordination, to name a few. But they'll inevitably work on more abstract skills as well, such as discernment ("If I pour too much, it will spill over") and logical cause and effect ("If I spill it, I'll need to wipe it up with a sponge"). Not to mention patience, both theirs and your own. If your child skips toward a task as eagerly as Laura Ingalls Wilder with her milking pail, only to launch suddenly into a personal remake of The Exorcist? Well, remind yourself that she's still learning valuable lessons. And so are you.

Lessons about cooperation and reciprocity, for instance. One day my 6-year-old asked, "How come you ask me to help with your jobs, but you always tell me to put my toys away by myself because 'that's a mess that you made'?" I felt like one of those cartoon characters clearing his head — boi-oi-oing! — with a noisy shake. "Good question!" And so I've quieted the "Put away your toys!" injunction, since it seems to make the kids feel like they're being punished for playing. Instead, I try to teach them chores that will benefit all of us — even if our "clean" windows look like they've been wiped with frosting and our "clean" salad is like an Orwellian torture of grit and wetness. Their father and I squint through the smeared glass, crunch through the spinach, smile, and thank the children kindly. We're in it for the long haul here.

Participating in the work of the household shows young children what it means to be part of a community. It nurtures their sense of themselves as able, independent, and esteemed members of the family. I hold out hope too that as they grow up, working side by side with us may afford kids the kind of quality time and easy intimacy that can be hard to come by these days. Our brooding teenagers may be more likely to share their troubles during a companionable front-step corn shucking than under our worrying, intense gaze. And when they're adults? Well, a whole generation of husbands and wives will surely drop to their knees to thank us.

Catherine Newman is the author of "Waiting for Birdy", a memoir of her pregnancy with her daughter. If she writes a sequel anytime soon, it'll likely be called "Waiting for Birdy to Finish Folding the Laundry."

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