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washing dishes at a toddler's pace: she learns, and so do I

"Guess what, Daddy? I cooked dinner! Well, Mommy helped..." (Nataja, age 5)

Maria Montessori, one of the most well-known education reformers of our time, was passionate about the idea that children learn best when engaged in real work with real tools... with proper safety and guidance, of course. She observed children's natural desire to imitate the work of adults around them, and she recognized the incredible impact that engaging in these types of tasks had on a child's self-confidence, intellectual and physical development, and enjoyment of the learning process.

Our two daughters are no different from the children of Montessori's 19th century Italy. From the earliest age imaginable, they started insisting on managing their own tasks and tools: eating with a spoon, walking, running, climbing up and down the slide, brushing their teeth, pushing down the toaster lever, and so much more. Not only did they have an intrinsic drive toward independence, but they also wanted to take part in, even take over, Mommy and Daddy's household chores. Doing the dishes, sweeping the floors, vacuuming, mopping, wiping counters, folding laundry, building furniture, painting, watering plants... whatever we do, they want to join in and accomplish as well.

In writing, it sounds so quaint, so adorable. Who wouldn't want to step back and allow these voracious learners to engage wholeheartedly in their noble tasks? In reality, however, this pint-sized drive for independence can be one of the most aggravating aspects of raising toddlers and preschoolers.

Why? Because, most of the time, we are trying to actually get things done. We need our kiddos to get dressed and into the car, with seatbelts buckled, in the next three minutes in order to make it to a doctor's appointment on time. We need to get the vegetables chopped, the meat cooked, and the table set in time for all the family to eat. We need the dishes washed, the bulbs planted, the walls painted, all on a timeline -- an invisible pulley reeling us along through life at the speed of light.

So, when we're trying to get dinner ready for the fourth time this week -- the 23rd time this month -- and our toddler is pulling at our floral yoga pants asking to "Help you please? Help you please? Help you please?" Well, it's pretty easy to become impatient... even lovingly so. Gently or not, we shoo her away and continue our task. Because there's so much to do, and time is ticking.

But it doesn't have to be this way. We can have the best of both worlds: a relationship where our young children are able to regularly engage in, or imitate, grown-up tasks and where we can still get things done. Here are a few tips:

1. Do slow down

It's easy to get so caught up in the light-rail pace of 21st century culture, we forget that most of the time we really do have the ability to slow down. When your child asks to help, take a quick inventory in your mind of whether you are able to spare some time for a teachable interaction. If you are, great! If not, try again next time. The beauty is, when you accept your child's invitation, your own mental and emotional state are blessed by slowing down and experiencing the moment at a child's pace: free from stress, deadlines, and to-do lists for a few sweet moments.

2. Share one small part of the task

Whenever I'm painting the trim in our house, which is one of my long-term, ongoing projects, my four-year-old is beyond eager to help. I love how excited she gets and how she immediately runs to put on one of Daddy's old shirts to paint in. At the same time, her "help" -- while such a joy to experience -- slows down an already slow and tedious task. So, I will almost always offer her one small part of the job, something that takes about five minutes of time together. She has fun and the satisfaction of working alongside Mommy; I have special bonding time and the ability to then move forward and finish the job at my own pace.

3. Create parallel tasks

Without fail, anytime I start to do the dishes I will have two bright-eyed daughters crowding around my hips. Now, dishes are one of my absolute, least-favorite household chores, and they tend to get piled up fairly high in this season of life. The idea of slowing down to engage my children's help is not appealing. Instead, we have a wonderful tradition of parallel tasks. I use one sink for washing the dishes, and I fill up the other sink for the girls to wash their tea party dishes. Or, on hot summer days, I'll fill up a small basin of water outside for the girls to do the same. I give them the same "tools" I'm using: sponge, dish soap (a tiny amount), and towels. They have a ball, end up getting soaking wet every time, and I'm able to joyfully finish my own chore.

I should stress that sharing my household chores is not about pandering to my children as a game, although it may seem like mostly fun and games for them. There is a deep sense of belonging and importance that takes root in a child when she is able to contribute to the family work. When I include my daughter in a task, I do my best to show her the correct way to do it so that she can be, or begin learning to be, a real help to our household.

The small shift it takes to slow down and invite our children into our work is well worth it. In the moment, there is so much joy in watching our mini-selves tackle a practical task. When the feat is accomplished, we marvel at how ecstatic our children become over the latest victory in their tiny world. And in our child's education as a whole, we see the power of authentic learning taking place over and over each time we slow down and allow them to step up to the challenge of a real-world task.

"Mommy, help you please?" says my two-year-old.

"Absolutely!" I reply, and I mean it!


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