When the Wallaces were stacking wood for their wood stove last fall, Katherine, who was two at the time, and five-year-old Ben helped haul logs in twos and threes in a little wheelbarrow and wagon.
''It was wonderful; they really persisted at it,'' says Lucy Wallace of Harvard, Mass. Now the children help bring wood from the woodpile under an outside porch to the cellar, where the Wallaces like to keep a week's supply of wood.
Teaching preschoolers to help around the house can have benefits for both the children and their families. Preschoolers learn cooperation and self-reliance, and once they have grasped how to do a particular chore, they can be a real help to parents.
Four-year-old Lorissa Worthing likes to help her mother fold diapers for her little sister, Elizabeth. ''We each have our separate piles, and when we're done , she knows where they go on the changing table,'' says Margaret Worthing. ''She's also super about helping Elizabeth button up and put on her shoes.''
Mrs. Worthing says 20-month-old Elizabeth is particularly good at putting away her toys, and is sometimes more willing to pitch in than her older sister. Elizabeth loves to clear the table, even though she can barely reach the sink, and she is always ready with a new trash-can liner when her mother comes in from taking out the garbage. ''She's going to be a big help in a couple of years,'' Mrs. Worthing says. ''Whatever we do, she tries to help.''
Teaching young children simple tasks can also enhance their feelings of confidence and self-worth, says John Fisher, coauthor of ''Your Preschooler'' (New York: Macmillan).
''Sometimes so little is asked of children, they're not sure what role they have in the family other than being 'the child,' '' he says.
Assigning simple responsibilities can help a child find a niche and feel good about contributing to the family. Rather than shying away from helping around the house, ''at certain ages kids seem to want it,'' says Mr. Fisher.
As he explains in his book, what adults see as drudgery, a preschooler often sees as exciting play. Many children like to imitate their parents, and can have as much fun washing pans in sudsy water as they do playing with their favorite toys.
Grace Moynihan of Portland, Maine, says her 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Adria, enjoys washing surfaces, such as the bathtub or cupboards. She also likes to shovel, rake, and plant things outside. ''It's part of playing for her,'' Mrs. Moynihan says. ''She likes to do what we do.''
Children also appreciate the companionship of working with a parent while they learn.
Lucy Wallace says her three-year-old daughter, Katherine, enjoys helping in the kitchen. She has a stool that she pulls up to the stove when her mother is cooking something over a low flame. She has learned to hold the handle of a pan while stirring scrambled eggs or cocoa with mom looking on.
Like many children, Katherine and her older brother have fun helping their mother make foods they like to eat. Last Christmas, for example, they had a good time rolling and decorating cookies. ''Katherine's interest would last about as long as Ben's, but neither would go the whole batch - that's asking a lot,'' she says, laughing.
For the parent's part, Mr. Fisher says, it requires a great deal more patience to explain how to do something to a child and help him master a skill step by step than for the parent to do it himself. It isn't always possible to take time for instructions during a busy day, but when they do have the time, parents often find the extra effort of teaching a child how to do something can pay off in the long run.
When both parents work, some of this learning takes place in a child-care situation. Mrs. Moynihan says her daughter Adria has learned a great deal at her day-care center about table manners, clearing dishes, and where things belong. She also dresses and washes herself. ''I have to give them a lot of credit for teaching her these things,'' she says.
The key to successful learning is to begin introducing chores slowly and build the skills gradually.
Mr. Fisher says parents can start by reinforcing simple acts with clear explanations, such as: ''Let's hang your coat on thism hook,'' or ''Now we are going to put your mittens in thism drawer.''
When children begin to do things themselves, Mr. Fisher recommends making requests very specific and understandable to the child. Tasks should be broken down into steps and completed one step at a time. For instance, ''Let's put the blocks in this box,'' followed by ''now put the box in the closet.'' According to Mr. Fisher, preschoolers usually cannot keep a string of instructions in mind until about age four.
Mr. Fisher says it's important not to punish a child if the task was not done correctly or if it wasn't done the way the parent thinks it should be done: ''The parent should be open to variations a child may bring to the task and respect that. The preschooler may have a better or easier way of doing something.''
If a parent wants a task done in a specific way, the steps should be spelled out and their expectations clearly understood, says Mr. Fisher.
Although he does not believe boys and girls must be brought up in exactly the same way, Mr. Fisher believes parents can begin to equip their children for situations they may run across later in life. ''Boys can learn domestic chores, and girls carpentry skills,'' he says. ''It serves everyone in good stead.''