Household chores: even preschoolers can do their share

One problem all parents face sooner or later is getting children to work around the house. Unfortunately, many of us assume total responsibility for chores when the kids are little, then expect our offspring to pitch in cheerfully at age 10 or 11. By this time, however, a pattern has been set, one that is difficult for both parent and child to break.

Instead, children should be encouraged to help out just as soon as they are able. This training can start at a very tender age. I'll never forget my amazement when our two-year-old appeared in the bathroom one evening just as I was lifting his little brother out of the tub. Proudly he clutched diaper, undershirt, pajamas, and even powder -- all the items he had decided the baby would need after his bath. Until then I had regarded the two-year-old as a baby too, but I learned my lesson quickly. From that day on he became my Chief Errand-Runner and did an admirable job of fetching and carrying.

It's surprising how many jobs preschoolers can perform around an average home. What is even more surprising is how much they enjoy housework. To them it's just another form of interesting and challenging play -- and with parental guidance it can also become a learning experience. Our three- and four-year-olds happily set the table, unpacked groceries, spray-polished the furniture, and argued over whose turn it was to peel potatoes. They learned their colors by sorting laundry, and eventually used math and reading skills to decipher cookie recipes. Their enthusiasm was less evident when it came to tidying their rooms, but I discovered that these more unpalatable tasks could be handled by turning them into a game such as Beat the Music (''Can you pick up the blocks before the song on the radio ends?'') or Who Can Fill the Clothes Hamper First? The winner, of course, was allowed to dry the dishes!

Often parents fall into the trap of ''doing it myself'' because it's quicker. But if we can learn to hold back and give our youngster the chance to try, we may be pleasantly surprised. Most preschoolers can do at least part of a task (which leaves less for us to complete). Or they can do the whole job in twice the time (but who's watching the clock?). And if Susie is truly bogged down, Mom can come to her rescue and both can finish the job as ''partners.''

A small child's natural enthusiasm for housework can be encouraged in several ways. It's important, for example, that parents create an atmosphere of fun when tasks are tackled. While bedmaking may be drudgery to us, our child needn't know -- not if we approach it in a pleasant manner. Parents should also guard against ''re-doing'' a child's work; setting too-high standards can discourage an eager learner.

Finally, parents should remember to praise children and thank them for the help they have given the entire family.

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