So what can we do, as parents and caregivers, to ensure that these household tasks foster connection, foster competence, and foster the children's ability to contribute? What can we do to help tasks go smoothly, so that we don't feel frazzled as we try to incorporate children into the neverending tasks of housework? It turns out there are lots of things we can do:
- Slow Down! Take your time with each task. Make each task an activity that's worthwhile for its own sake, taking special care with the daily tasks. Approach each one with respect and enjoyment. When you rush, children tend to steer clear and try to stay out of your way, or they try to pull your attention away from your task and onto them, to get you to stop rushing. When you slow down and take your time, you have enough attention for the task and the child at the same time, and children will want to join in with you.
- Develop a rhythm. By rhythm, I mean to do things in the same way, at the same time, as often as you can. I fold laundry each day during free-play time. It gives me something to do so that I can be present and watch children play without being directly involved unless I'm needed. And I love to brush the children's hair after naptime. What a lovely way to bond with each child as we engage in bodily care. Children are used to me doing these tasks at these times; it's an accepted part of our lives together.The other piece of rhythm is that when we do things the same way each time, children can learn that skill. Children learn through imitation. If you have any doubts on this score, read this article from Science Daily, titled “Humans Appear to Be Hardwired to Learn By 'Over-Imitation.'” What it shows is that children do things the way we do them. Even if we tell them to do it differently, they will still do things the way we do them. So think carefully about HOW you're doing things, the attitude that you bring to each activity. This attitude is picked up by the children as well.
- Use songs. Songs are a great way to connect with children, and they are also a great way to help kids track where in the process you are. I have a song for washing the table, for sweeping the floor, for folding the laundry. I also use songs for repetitive tasks like passing things out to each child, or if we're taking turns stirring the bowl, etc., each child gets to stir for the duration of a short song. In addition, I'll also hum while I am doing a task by myself. I find that when I hum I slow down myself, and the children all around me settle down. I think when they hear me humming, they feel like I'm right there with them, even if I'm not looking at them or interacting with them. It allows my presence to fill the room and children can rest secure that I'm there with them and not distracted by other things. You don't have to be a "good" singer for this to feel fulfilling for children.
- Set yourself up for success. By this I mean, figure out how kids can be involved, and be prepared. Most of the tasks I do while the children are playing, and children can join me or not, as they choose (although if a child is having trouble being gentle with others, we'll find some good work for those hands to do and they stay by my side until they are ready to try being gentle again). But when I go to wash a table, I'll bring two extra washcloths with me, and as I start to sing my table-washing song, children might come over and ask to help, and I have a cloth right there. Other tasks I know will be very popular, such as baking, so I gather all of the materials together before we get started, so that things can go smoothly. Another thing that helps things go smoothly, especially if you're alone, is to have an easy exit. If you and another child are washing dishes together but a tussle breaks out in the play-room, I'll lift the child down from the sink, pull the chair away, and ask them to sit on the chair until I get back.
- Appreciate effort over results. Young children are process-oriented, not results-oriented. While washing dishes, a two-and-a-half year old will often happily wash the same spoon the entire time you're washing dishes. When we appreciate their effort and acknowledge their desire to contribute, then the activity feels fulfilling for the young child. Be sincere and genuine with your praise, and don't over-do it. An appreciative smile with eye contact during the act, and a “Thank you for your help” when they run off to play, can be quite enough. The results will come over time.Appreciating effort over results doesn't mean just letting them do whatever they want, however they want. They are learning these tasks at your side. So if your two-year-old wants to throw the laundry around instead of folding it, you can show him how to help you smooth each piece as you fold it. Only fold a little bit of laundry at a time, so that you can finish each bit together, then put them out of the way so the task won't be undone. With practice, he'll get the hang of it, and so will you!
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