Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Work side-by-side!

One of the best things I've ever learned about child-raising is to do everything together!

From baking bread to washing dishes to making the bed, you name it, Ethan's right in there with me, sleeves rolled up, covered with dough, sopping wet. And he's been doing all of this since he was old enough to walk--perhaps even before that!

So many times I see kids cloistered off in rooms full of toys to "play" all day. "Stay out of the kitchen!" and, "Don't bother Mama - she's busy!" or, "She's too young to do that." Is she really too young? Or are her parents too busy (or stressed) to take the time to show her how to properly use it, or get a little water on the floor while she experiments?

Doing simple household chores with your sons and daughters (rather than playing all day with artificial toys in an artificial environment) not only teaches your children how to learn and follow directions, but it brings them into the partnership of family--a family who wants them, needs them, and most importantly, values their help and support.

In fact, most of the time Ethan would much rather help me in the kitchen than play with any of his toys!

His favorite chores that he begs to do? Washing dishes and cleaning the toilet. Why? Because we work together, step-by-step, side-by-side, while I explain to him every step of the way: "Put the brush in there like that. Good! Now watch, because if the bleach gets on your clothes, it'll stain."

Imagine my husband's surprise when he came home from work one evening and Ethan (two years old) pointed the container and said, "Bleach," and then demostrated--with excited gestures--how to clean the toilet, and begged to do it again!

Does it take me longer to finish our work? YES. Do I occasionally end up with bigger messes than I started with? Absolutely. Working with children is a slow and messy process, often requiring prayers against frustration, high expectations, and a perfect--or even near perfect--end result. But the goal is a good one, and our children are wiser in the end. Not every kid can list, with uncanny accuracy, the igredients to make a cake and demonstrate (by getting out the correct mixing bowl and wooden spoon from the cabinet) how to do it, or know the difference between rinsing and washing dishes and when to do which, or how to scrape the plates after dinner.

Of course there are always precautions: Watch out for hot stoves and hot pans. I put Ethan on a stepladder out of reach while I'm cooking so he can see, and ocasionally stir, but only from a distance, and with close supervision. Be careful with cleaning chemicals and bleach, and let him know these are only for adult use. Also be careful with glass, ceramic, or stoneware plates and cups that can shatter if he drops them. When we wash dishes, I always give Ethan plastic cups and plates or blunt spoons, and make sure the water temperature isn't too hot.

All precautions taken into consideration, there are few things I don't let Ethan help me with. Most kids, even as young as Ethan, can do practically anything with guidance: pushing buttons on a blender, holding the mixer (with help), "helping" to make the bed or put on sheets, cutting vegetables with a butter knife while you chop with a "real" one, putting away her own clothes and shoes into easy-access drawers or shelves, watering plants, kneading bread dough or rolling out cookie dough, helping to sweep and mop the floor, and putting away toys and purses and jackets at the end of the day. I even let Ethan pick up the crumbs under the table after he eats, help me sweep it clean, and then carry the dishes to the sink one by one.

Don't forget to make every activity fun, smile even if you're tired, and HEAP ON the praise! If he makes a mess (unless it's in direct disobedience), don't scold. You want his heart open and willing, not closed-off with criticism. Let him help you clean it up, and cheerfully encourage him to try to keep the water in the sink next time.

I don't like mess any more than the next mom, but I've relaxed a bit with time and realized, "It's just water." Dishes can be replaced. Clothes can be washed, or if they're totally ruined, used for painting smocks. Life goes on. But your child is only young and moldable for a finite amount of time, and now is your teachable moment!

As soon as I finish this post I'll be putting together some baked pasta for dinner, and Ethan will help me grate cheese, pour the white wine, measure the spices, and butter the dish.

And when we eat together with my husband tonight, I'll brag on what a great job Ethan did. Who knows? Maybe a few years from now Ethan will be doing it all himself!

Jennifer Rogers Spinola lives in Brasilia, Brazil with her Brazilian husband, Athos, and two-year-old son, Ethan. She teaches ESL private classes and is the author the "Southern Fried Sushi" series with Barbour Books (first book released in October!) Jenny is an advocate for adoption and loves the outdoors, and has previously served as a missionary to Japan.


  1. Thank you for the reminder....there are too many times that I've asked DH to take DD out of the kitchen when Mommy is trying to finish getting supper ready.

    Time to remember what my priorities should be. Thanks again!

  2. LOL... Carolyn stole my comment!!! 'Thanks for reminding me not to shoo my daughter out of the kitchen!' She is seventeen. Could be a big help, but I am so used to doing everything, I have a plan in my head and no script for a partner role! I will try harder! Thanks Jenny! Good to have you!

  3. You're so welcome, Carolyn and Cherilyn! Thanks for commenting! I just love it when Ethan gets excited about doing things with me. Yesterday I told him we were going to do dishes, and he jumped up and down, squealed, and ran to get the step ladder! :) Not my reaction to doing dishes... LOL... but it keeps him occupied, I can keep an eye on him, and most of all, he learns. The other day after we ate lunch at someone's house he started cleaning the table with a wet cloth! :)

    And last night he was soooo proud of helping me make the pasta... you should have seen him! :) Keep up the good work, guys! Just try a little at a time and make it fun, and I'll bet they come back for more!

    Oh, and I put on music sometimes, too, in the kitchen so we can sing and work. He loves that. Maybe your kids would, too?

  4. Oh, yes. What a great reminder! My four year old is forever wanting to help, and I'm always brushing him off, not so much in the kitchen, but with other things.

    Hmmmm...I'm thinking next time he asks to help fold laundry, I'll let him. I don't know about letting my fifteen month old clean the toilet though. He's already far too curious about the toilet brush and water. LOL.

  5. Naomi~

    My 4 y.o. daughter gets mad at me if I fold the washcloths. "Mommy, why did you do my job?" We're working on rolling the socks into a ball next, but she hasn't quite gotten the hang of it yet.

    She loves to help with the dishes too. I run a sink of rinse water, and she stacks the dishes in the drainer. She doesn't do sharp utensils or heavy glasses and mugs, but everything else is good. She always remembers to put the butter knives in blade down (a quirk of mine, and now hers I suppose =D).

    I confess I resort to the "TV sitter" a little too often. Thanks for the nudge, Jenny!

  6. Washcloths. That's so cute, Andrea. I was thinking I'd give him reign of his own clothes. Who cares how messy his dresser is, as long as he's not folding my shirts.

    There's not really room for two people at our sink, and the plates are glass with a ceramic sink. Lots of potential something could break. But now I'm thinking Nathan could was silverware.

  7. Hey, Naomi and Andrea! Yes, I bet Nathan could definitely do silverware! Our sink is tiny, too, so I give Ethan a step ladder (the fold-up kind, metal, that folds out into three steps - know what I'm talking about?) I pull it right next to me, just an inch or two away so he doesn't have to lean far to reach the water, etc. He stands on the top step, and I give him a couple of dishes and soapy cloth and run some water in the dishes for him to wash (i.e. "play") with. We don't have double sinks in Brazil, so when I rinse, he just sticks the dish in there. You might consider buying him a couple of "his" plastic dishes to use and wash so he can take ownership of them, and then brag to your husband (and anybody else around, Grandma, whoever) that he did it himself. :) Ethan LOVES this! Sometimes I call people just to brag on what he's doing, and he hears and is even more motivated to do it next time!

  8. Okay, I tried the dishes with Nathanael. He took twenty minutes to wash what I could have done in three. Put the clean dishes back in the dishwater numerous times, but had a blast. :^)

  9. That's so cool, Naomi! :D I'm so happy he enjoyed it! If you do it more frequently it probably won't take you as long to complete. Ethan got the hang of it a little better after a while, and while he still doesn't do it properly, we work faster now since he knows what to do. Let me know how it goes!

    ps - We were making a white sauce for cream of tomato soup yesterday, and I'd added flour and butter for the roux to the saucepan. "Salt?" he said, looking up. And yes, I hadn't gotten out the salt yet! What, does he memorize the entire recipe? :)

  10. what a great post, Jenny! I love having my little guy (two as well) help cook and do dishes...he LOVES it. But I'm also so guilty of saying "go play" at times as well.