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.