Raise your child with the expectation that we always clean up our own messes.
Begin by helping your child, until they learn it. They’ll learn it faster if you can be cheerful and kind about it and remember not to sweat the small stuff.
Encourage them to help by handing them a sponge as you pick one up yourself, even when it’s easier to do it yourself. As long as you aren’t judgmental about it, they’ll want to help clean up and make things better.
So when your toddler spills their milk, say “That’s ok. We can clean it up,” as you hand them a paper towel and pick one up yourself.
When your pre-schooler leaves their shoes scattered in your path, hand them to them and ask them to put them away, saying kindly “We always clean up our own stuff.”
You will have to do this, in one form or another, until they leave your home. But if your approach is positive and light-hearted, your child won’t get defensive and whine that you should do the clean-up. And when kids hear the constant friendly expectation that “We always clean up our own messes…Don’t worry, I’ll help….Here are the paper towels for you; I’ll get the sponge…” they become both easier to live with and better citizens of the world.
Kids need an opportunity to contribute to the common good.
All children contribute to the rest of us in some way, regularly. Find those ways and comment on them, even if it is just noticing when they are kind to their younger siblings or that you enjoy how they’re always singing. Whatever behaviours you acknowledge will grow.
As your children get older, their contributions should increase appropriately, both within and outside the household. Kids need to grow into two kinds of responsibilities: their own self-care, and contributing to the family welfare. Research indicates that kids who help around the house are also more likely to offer help in other situations than kids who simply participate in their own self-care.
Of course, you can’t expect them to develop a helpful attitude overnight. It helps to steadily increase responsibility in age appropriate ways. Invite toddlers to put napkins on the table, three-year-olds to set places. Four-year-olds can match socks, and five-year-olds can help you groom the dog.
Six-year-olds are ready to clear the table, seven-year-olds to water plants, and eight-year-olds to fold laundry.
Remember that no kid in his right mind wants to do chores.
Unless you want your child to think of contributing to the family as drudgery, don’t make them do chores without you until they are a regular part of your family routine and one that your child does not resist. Your goal isn’t getting this job done, it’s shaping a child who will take pleasure in contributing and taking responsibility.
Make the job fun. Give as much structure, support, and hands-on help as you need to, including sitting with them and helping for the first thirty times they do the task, if necessary. Know that it will be much harder than doing it yourself. Remind yourself that there’s joy in these tasks, and communicate that, along with the satisfaction of a job well done. Eventually, they will be doing these tasks by themselves, and that day will come much faster if they enjoy them.
Always let children “do it myself” and “help,” even when it’s more work for you.
And it will always be more work for you. But toddlers want desperately to master their physical worlds, and when we support them to do that, they step into the responsibility of being “response-able.”
So instead of rushing through your list, reframe. You’re working with your child to help them discover the satisfaction of contribution. That’s more important than having the job done quickly or perfectly. Notice that you’re also bonding, which is what motivates kids to keep contributing.
Rather than simply giving orders, try asking your child to do the thinking.
For instance, to the dallying child in the morning, instead of barking “Brush your teeth! Is your backpack packed? Don’t forget your lunch!”
You could ask, “What’s the next thing you need to do to get ready for school?”
The goal is to keep them focused on their list, morning after morning until they internalize it and begin managing their own morning tasks.