How to Bring Children into the Work of the Household?
The internet buzz is palpable around Liza Fox’s beautiful article Meaningful Work for Toddlers over at The Parenting Passageway.
Parents are loving the beautiful musing and practical list of chores to do with children and asking, okay how do I get my child to do those things? How do I slow down and find meaningful time to give and receive love from my child and nourish that sacred relationship that Raelee Peirce describes in Parenting Counter Culture?
In addition to getting the job done, meaningful work has many benefits for the child, the parents, the family and the household. The physical work is accomplished while developing a healthy sense of life, deepening emotional relationships and contributing of ones self, a basis for contribution on the world.
Meaningful work in an ordinary day brings children into the rhythm of the home and the daily care and maintenance of the household. It fosters a feeling of belonging in the family and of contributing as well. Working together as family fosters relationships, connection and healthy attachment. Additionally to bring a child into meaningful ordinary work of the home fosters a connection with the universe, with the natural world. Fritjof Capra points out that he very word ordinary has its roots in “order” as in harmony of the universe.
“Doing work which has to be done over and over again helps us recognize
the natural cycles of growth and decay, or birth and death, and thus
become aware of the dynamic order of the universe. “Ordinary” work, as
the root meaning of the term indicates, is work that is in harmony with
the order we perceive in the natural environment.” ~ Fritjof Capra
Here I offer my suggestions from what has worked with my own children and the children of The Children’s Garden:
Start small and keep it simple.
Work is play and play is work for the young child so begin with reasonable expectations. ‘If s/he can walk, s/he can work” is a reasonable expectation in terms of capability to work. Children who are welcomed and expected to participate from a very young age have a solid foundation for engaging in meaningful work later on in life.
Make participation free. That may sound like a contradiction to reasonable expectations although it is not. We can create an inner space for the expectation to live within us, the adults and bring outer joy and practical possibility with space and tools and time for the child to join in.
Make participation playful and engaging for the child. Participation might look like cutting flowers from the yard for the table, setting the table with napkins and utensils, clearing dishes, sweeping the floor, washing the floor – children love to mop the floor!
Parents, if you can relax and allow plenty of time for moping, it can be great fun as can shoveling the driveway in winter and digging in the garden in summer. Children love to help carry in, unpack and put away the groceries. The dishwasher has been an object of admiration in our kitchen, guide the child along to help load and unload the dishwasher. Set up a short line that the child can reach to hang up the washcloths with clothes pins. The child can take them down, fold them and put them away too.
Provide an area where the child can play out the work of the household next to mom and dad while they work: a pot, a few sea shells and a wooden spoon on a little table can make a stove for the child.
Know that the child may go back and forth from drying the dishes with mom and dad to “cooking” in their “kitchen.” Children are sanguine and flit from place to place in a room in play and work.
Use what you have My ironing board can be lowered to child’s height for real ironing. For play ironing, here is a homemade ironing board and iron. It’s a bench, a block, a cloth over the bench and a basket of Dolly’s clothes.
Make it part of your daily and weekly rhythm, here’s an example of our weekly rhythm. When children anticipate what is coming, it eases their transition into the day, into the activity and they can relax and participate more smoothly. Rhythm frees us to be more present and enjoy what we do without having to ponder, “what do I serve for dinner?” or “where is a clean towel?” Rhythm helps put tasks and items and peace in place in our homes.
Create a feeling of spaciousness in your days ~ Daily life is the curriculum for the young child. Allow plenty of time to do the work of the household and for transitions between activities. This work and play is the “child’s curriculum” for the child under seven. Remember that it is these tasks and daily chores that matter, more than trips to events and classes, it is the engagement in daily living that deeply nourishes the child and provides a strong and healthy foundation for learning and life.
Love it ~ Do the task with love, as you wash the dishes, are you feeling love inside for the members of your family nourished through this task? for the people who grow the food to serve on these plates? for the creatures who gave their lives to nourish your bodies? can you get to that place of gratitude and devotion? The child experiences our inner feelings very deeply.
Sing it! Children are drawn to singing, especially to mother’s voice. Make it up, be consistent with the song and it can serve as a signal that it is time to fold the clothes, or time to sweep the floor.
Use a regular rhythmic verse for the task, like this one for chopping:
Cut off the bottom
And cut off the top.
What we have left,
We’ll put in the pot.
Sing regular, repetitive, nursery rhythms for activities, like Sally Put the Kettle On for tea, Peas Porridge Hot for oats, Do you know the Muffin Man? for muffin making.
Make it practical for the child
- Have a step up to the counter, an inverted crate, a stool or a chair
- Have a work apron for your child
- Provide a cutting board that belongs to your child, if you have many children, have one for each child
- A knife that is just right for the child, it may be a small paring knife or a two handed chopper
- Hang a small clothesline outdoors and have clothes pegs for the child to hang the wash clothes each week and dollies clothes too and have a step up to the big clothesline for older children to help out
Provide strong well made child size tools ~ it is a worthwhile investment that will payoff over the years with durability and practicality
- a broom to sweep inside the house
- a carpet sweeper (unscrew the handle to make it child size), example here
- a push broom to sweep the deck
- a rake
- a snow shovel
- a sturdy dirt shovel, like this
Do work by hand ~ Many households have dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, dryers food, processors, plowing services and household help. Start by bringing one or two tasks that can be done by hand, one for each day (such as washing dishes, maybe one meal a day by hand or sweep around the table after one meal each day) and one for each week (hanging clothes on an outdoor line ~ smells so sweet! or moping the floor together)
Enjoy! Your child’s early years are fleeting even when it does not feel that way.
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Lisa Boisvert Mackenzie is the Editor and Publisher of The Wonder of Childhood and has spent the past fifteen years with one of her own children in early childhood (under seven years of age.) She was blessed with a wondrous, rhythmic and outdoor childhood on the coast of Maine. Lisa has worked with children and their families for the past twenty four years, initially as a homebirth midwife. Lisa’s home based program The Children’s Garden began twelve years ago on a remote tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. Lisa’s current focus is on supporting parents of young children to find rhythm in daily, weekly and seasonal life through her interactive curriculum program Celebrate the Rhythm of Life through the Year, more on that here. She lives with her family in Northern Vermont and blogs at Celebrate the Rhythm of Life . She also hosts a discussion groups for parents of young children here.
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