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Is It Too Early To Teach My Toddler and Preschooler Responsibility?

There are plenty of small responsibilities tailor-made for the little hands of your toddler or preschooler.

  • It wouldn't be unreasonable for your toddler to have the responsibility of throwing away his or her disposable diaper after you've secured it.
  • There is no rule against having your bed-wetting five-year-old help with clean-up, including removing the sheets from the bed and putting them in the hamper.
  • Your four-year-old would probably be very proud to have the grown-up responsibility of placing the spoons on the dinner table for the family meal.

It is better to give children responsibility gradually, when they are still young so they don't take on the attitude that such jobs are your duty. Some of the opportunities and advantages of giving toddlers and preschoolers age-appropriate responsibilities include the following:

  • It's 7 a.m., and four-year-old Timmy is still sitting in the middle of his bedroom floor with his shoes in front of him. After a few threats from Mom, he begins to whine that he cannot put on his shoes this morning. "You do it Mommy!" he demands. Mom could take over the responsibility of putting on her son's shoes, but instead she takes the time to teach him that it is his responsibility. He can ask Mom, without whining or demanding, to knot the laces. Mom says, "Timmy, I'm going to set the timer. When it goes off, I expect you to try to put on your own shoes." She quickly leaves the room to finish other morning chores. Now, whether Timmy follows this instruction or not, Mom has given him a reasonable and clear responsibility to put on his shoes. If he tries, she can encourage and praise him. If he does not, she can give him more time in the car to try to put on his shoes before being allowed to play with his favorite traveling toy. In the long run, his struggle is worth it.
  • Lisa is 5, and she has learned that it is her responsibility to answer the phone by saying, "Hello, this is the Smith home. Please wait. I will get my mom or dad." She then lays the phone down quietly and quickly finds an adult to take the call. Her parents practiced with her for several weeks before she was allowed to answer the phone for real. Along the way, they praised and encouraged her attempts, progress and accomplishments. For Lisa, this responsibility also served as a reward.
  • Tami learned that good health is a must. That's why her mom made her responsible for getting everyone to brush their teeth before bedtime. Tami's job is to show Mom, Dad and siblings the proper way to take care of teeth. She receives a star on her daily chart every night for this and earns a surprise of her choice when she gets three stars.

Here are a few tips to develop your child's sense of responsibility:

  • Be aware. Know whether your child is developmentally ready to do the task.
  • Show and tell. Talk to your child, and show him or her how to do what's expected.
  • Work with him or her. Assist your child when he or she first begins learning what you want.
  • Be consistent but flexible. Remember: It's your child's job, not yours, even when you help.
  • Support the struggle. Don't rescue your child right away. Even if he or she fails in the beginning, your child will be more confident when the responsibility is finally mastered.
  • Show encouragement. Praise your child for the attempts, improvements and completion of tasks.
  • Break it down. Separate a large task into smaller parts based on your child's ability.
  • Be patient. You may have to redo parts of the job until your child gets better at it. However, do not let your child see you go back over something!
  • Keep track. Chart your child's progress to show what he or she is learning.
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