Last week I realized that Bee can dress himself. News flash, I know: A 3-year-old is capable of getting dressed on his own! I guess I just hadn’t realized it since I’ve been dressing him up to this point. For whatever reason I challenged him to do it himself and, TA-DA!, he wowed me with his stellar self-dressing skills.
3-year-olds are masters of getting parents to do things that they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. Take walking, for example. Bee still begs me to carry
him at times, flopping on the floor and earnestly calling out, “Carry
me! I don’t know how to walk!” Most of the time I resist, but there are times I pick up that 35-pound sack of cuteness and tote him around on my hip. Preschoolers still need assurances that
their parents are there to take care of them, which means the
transition to big kid is often two steps forward, one step back.
But maybe the flip side is that as parents we often don’t give preschoolers enough credit for the things they can do. Case in point: When Zip started a new daycare at 2 1/2 and the teacher told us she was encouraging him to wipe his own nose. What?! My 2-year-old doesn’t need me to do that for him?! I realized at that moment maybe we were babying him just a tad. And maybe – I’ll admit it – maybe doing things for my little boys let’s me pretend they are babies just a little bit longer.
In spite of these reasons, there are definitely advantages to encouraging and allowing age-appropriate independence. It teaches responsibility and self-sufficiency. Kids get a sense of pride from mastering new skills. And, oh yeah, it is one less thing parents have to do!
So, how do we move our kids from being able to do something to actually doing it on a regular basis? A little encouragement and praise might do the trick. Or you can just insist. I’ve also found that a “chore chart” can be a great motivator and, over time, help turn a new behavior into a routine one. When Bee was born, one of the biggest changes we saw in Zip was that he wanted us to spoon-feed him again at mealtimes. I was worried that getting into a power struggle at dinner and insisting he be a “big boy” would make him feel displaced (I was, after all, feeding his new baby brother), so we created a chart that let him earn stickers for things like dressing and feeding himself. He loved earning stickers, there was no battle, and before long he stopped asking us to do those things for him.
Bee’s new chart has three “chores” on it: 1) Get dressed (which includes putting dirty clothes in the hamper) 2) make the bed, and 3) eat dinner. Eat dinner probably seems silly, but it has been a battle lately not only to get him to eat what is on his plate but also convincing him to do it himself. We’ve been totally slacking on Zip’s allowance, so I threw together a chore chart for him, too. We hung the boys’ charts on their bedroom doors rather than on the refrigerator, because we are less likely to forget if the boys see them every morning. They put a sticker on their charts for each job they complete.
We just came to the end of the first week. The new chore chart is definitely helping Zip follow through with his responsibilities – probably because he is looking forward to the 50 cents he earns at the end of the week. Certain things that he used to resist doing, like feeding the dogs, are getting done without an ounce of protest now. And switching out his completed chart for a new one also reminds us to actually pay him his allowance. (God help me if he asks for back-pay for the weeks and weeks we’ve forgotten.)
Bee is dressing himself and making his bed in the morning. It’s pretty darn cute to watch him carefully arrange the blanket on his
bed and collect his stuffed animals to rest on his pillow. But I realized this afternoon, as he helped me move wet laundry from the washer to the dryer (which is not on his list of chores), that maybe a chart isn’t necessary at all. At 3 years old he sincerely wants to help and, if we make a big deal out of it, he’s often excited to do things for himself. Sure, Bee loves having a chart just like his big brother, but I think the gratification he gets from doing something new on his own is the real motivator.
If anything, the chart has kept me on track by making me more aware of when I’m doing things for Bee out of convenience or habit rather than necessity. I am less likely to jump in and dress Bee, even on a busy morning, when I know he needs to do it himself to earn his sticker. Bee is doing a better job eating dinner, but I am not sure if it’s actually because he wants a sticker or because Hubby and I have been more consistent with insisting he feed himself if he wants to eat.
I suppose the morals of this story are:
- Preschoolers will often do things for themselves if we back off and let them. They are often capable of more than we realize.
- A chore chart can be handy for getting over the “hump” (like we did with Zip after Bee was born) or motivating older kids to follow through by making the expectations consistent and concrete. But preschoolers are often happy to help out, and it’s best not to use external rewards in that case.
- Personality and age make a difference. Zip responds really well to chore charts. The structure of a chart and the extrinsic reinforcement seems to really help him establish new habits (like putting his clothes in the hamper instead of leaving them on his floor). Bee, on the other hand, may not need that. Time will tell.
Do your kids have chores? When did you begin or at what age do you think you’ll begin? Do you use a chart or just remind them of what they are expected to do?