Chore Challenge Week 3: “Nobody likes it when you move their walls.”

toy toddler not doing choreA friend whose kids are 5 and 2 declared her chore challenge: her 5-year-old will set the table—for real this time, not just when it was convenient, or when she herself hadn’t already done it, or when the child wasn’t quietly busy with something else.

But what, she asked, about the 2-year-old?

Any parent of a toddler knows that you choose your battles with those unpredictable, mercurial creatures. One week, she might happily carry a cup for her sister. The next, merely suggesting that dinner might be served soon could provoke a tantrum.

2-year-olds can do some chores. They can throw away trash, carry their plate from the table, put their dirty clothes in the hamper. And sometimes they’re thrilled to help (or “help”) you with anything from scrubbing the toilet to tying your shoes. But what my friend was really asking was this: should she enforce the chore for her 2-year-old, or is two too young to be part of the Chore Challenge?

If you want to raise children amidst the expectation that they’ll help tend the household they’re a part of, then you should have some expectations of even your 2-year-old, and they should be real. I was a guest on Karen Lock Kolp’s “We Turned Out Okay” podcast today, and she said something very insightful (which she attributed to an older teacher who was part of her teacher training earlier in life):

“If you tell a child you expect him to do something, like put away the blocks every time he’s used them, then that’s sort of a room you’ve created in his brain, where things work a certain way, where there are certain walls. Then if some of the time, you let him leave the blocks without putting them away, you’re moving the walls. And nobody likes it when the walls move.”

When we let our kids, even two-year-olds, live in our house without walls, we’re not helping them. In fact, we’re cheating them out of being a genuine, contributing part in something larger than themselves.

That said, when it comes to very little children (2-3), I’d make my chore challenge something that’s obviously related to them: they clear their plate, or put their shirt in the laundry, or put their shoes away. I’d make them do it every time (I suggest choosing a chore you can make happen by carrying child and object to the desired location, putting the object where it needs to go, and then carrying child away, screaming, if need be).

And then I’d happily accept their “help” when it’s offered. So I wouldn’t make setting the table their job just yet. Instead, I’d tell the 5-year-old that that’s big girl stuff, and someday, her sister will grow into it too.

Meet the challenge: Don’t let your kids off the hook, even when it’s tempting to do the chore yourself.

How’s your chore week going? I’m working on getting my kids to take charge of cleaning the kitchen after dinner. One glorious night, I reminded the two children in charge of dinner clean-up that they’d need to get that done, then went to take a shower. I could hear distant noises, and then there was a hesitant knock. I expected the worst.

“Can I pack the leftovers for my lunch?”

Why, sure. That night, the kitchen was cleaned, and pretty well. But just a couple of nights later, though, the jobs switched—and a confused Dinner Dishes cleared the table, while Table Clearer just disappeared. When I walked into the kitchen, it was empty of kids and full of dirty dishes.

Dinner Dishes was doing homework. Table Clearer was doing something quiet, somewhere else in the house. That’s always a tempting moment. But I didn’t give in. I called both back, and Dinner Dishes insisted that Table Clearer at least help with the counters.

I think, because the jobs rotate, that this will take the full 12 weeks to get settled in for us. And I think if I wasn’t thinking “12 weeks” I wouldn’t be as good about calling kids back, or requiring that they, not I, fill in if one of the kids who shouldn’t be cleaning isn’t home. I’d be moving the walls. And nobody really likes that, not at 2, not at 12.

How are things going for you, I’d love to hear. Email me:

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