Cooperation Nation

father and son high fivingYou love your three-year-old. And you have strong powers of persuasion. Perhaps you’re a diplomat or a prison warden.

And all you want is for your three-year-old to clean up their toys before bedtime without you having to give a nightly reminder. I mean they know the routine, right?

Is that too much to ask?

Well, there’s a fair to middling chance that it is.

Why in the world don’t our little friends cooperate when we ask them to do simple chores around the house?

One of the most common reasons is that the child isn’t developmentally ready for the task at hand. As well as you know your child (and you know them better than anyone), you may still be a bit optimistic around what’s possible for them. For instance, most five-year-olds are able to deal with regular chores – like putting the toys away – without a reminder. But three-year-olds are not usually there yet. They can put their dirty clothes away and wipe the table with a sponge (some kids can even do both things at the same time… they’re known as “circus performers”!). But you’ve got to generally tell a three-year-old to perform a task each and every time you want it done. Most three-year-olds can’t internalize the kind of clock you (and most other humans age five and older) already have for completing chores without being told to do so.

So number one, save yourself and your child a ton of aggravation. Learn more about the ages when young children can typically perform different household chores.

young girl cleaning tableNumber two… what if you’ve looked at the chart? You’ve seen that most three-year-olds are capable of a task like sponging off the table when asked. (The chart isn’t foolproof – there’s variation among children the same age – but you’ve thought this through and the task does seem do-able for your particular child.) The only problem now is that Junior isn’t having it. And you’re both frustrated. The table’s still covered with crumbs and who knows what else… plus three wet sponges have been thrown to the floor, creating yet another mess. Now what?

Take a breath. Calm yourself down. And think about why your child isn’t cooperating. This may be hard to do in the moment. But do your best and know that, like your child, you’ll probably be able to do even better next time. Perhaps your directions weren’t clear enough. “Clean the table” may not do it. Young children often need specific, concrete instructions more like “use this sponge that I’m giving you to wipe the crumbs from the top of your table.” If your child still doesn’t start the chore, they may need you to model it again for them – “ok, remember take the sponge and swish the crumbs away like this.” If your child is angry the chore (or about something else), validate their feelings but also be firm – “I understand that you’re angry about _____ and that’s okay. Once you calm down, though, you will still have to wipe the table.”

Finally remember that children need plenty of practice to become competent at a chore. If they do a lousy job but it’s there best effort, still give them immediate and specific praise. Underneath any cries or tantrums, your child wants to become a “big boy” or “big girl” who can do things for themselves… and get your approval. It’s not always easy, but you can help them get there.