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Preschoolers, children age three to five years, have mastered many basic skills and are ready to use them in helpful ways. It can be tempting to continue doing everything yourself because it’s more efficient, and teaching, cajoling, and waiting for a child to complete a task can be agonizing. However, children should learn at an early age that participation in the family routine, including chores, is expected and required. Fulfilling these duties even boosts their self-esteem and teaches the feeling of pride in a job well done.

There is no set age at which a child should suddenly be required to perform a list of chores. The concept should be introduced gradually, and most parents will have already been doing it in small ways since the child was one or two. Did you teach your toddler to put her blocks back in the box when she’d finished playing with them? Even simple tasks such as having the child wipe her own face with a napkin or get a new diaper from the shelf at changing time can establish the idea that helping is good.

Preschoolers with younger siblings often have a built-in incentive to help out. If the child’s relationship with the new baby is going well, it’s natural for the child to want to help care for the baby. He can’t change the baby’s diaper, but he can get a new one. A child feeding his baby sister a few bites of cereal is not only a great photo opportunity, it’s also a time for bonding between siblings and a valuable learning experience. Mom might ask the child to entertain “his” baby while she’s on the phone, retrieve the toy baby just tossed out of the playpen, or even watch them for short periods of time to keep them out of trouble. Of course, an adult caregiver should never be farther away than the next room.

When issuing orders for chores and responsibilities, it’s important to know your child very well. Preschoolers are often unpredictable and still need a lot of interaction in everything they do. There may be days when the child is helpful, independent, and confident – yet the next day (or hour, for that matter) she may behave the opposite way. A preschooler might pick out her clothes and dress herself each morning for weeks, and then complain one day that she can’t. It’s hard to know the difference between a child who is testing the rules and a child who needs help through a rough patch in her life. Help out, but don’t make it more fun for the child to avoid the job than it is to do it herself.

If the child resists doing a chore, never belittle or punish him. Calling him “a baby” or “lazy” is not going to get the job done. The idea is to teach a basic work ethic, not to frighten the child into submission. He should help out for the right reasons – a sense of pride and a desire to please. Keep the chores simple, give him jobs that require a short amount of time, and try to find tasks in which the child can understand the value. He may not understand why you want the table dusted, but he will understand why the jelly should be wiped off the kitchen table. Don’t expect the job to be done perfectly. Remember, you are not asking for his help because you need it, you are asking for his help because you are teaching him a skill.

One idea to teach the child how to do his job is to “partner” with him. Tell him the bathroom needs to be cleaned, and he’s your cleaning buddy. You spray, he wipes. You sprinkle the cleanser into the toilet bowl, he scrubs with the brush. You sweep the floor, he holds and empties the dustpan. The bonus? He gets time with his parent and immediate feedback. Next time, he might wipe and spray too.

What sort of chores should your preschooler be expected to perform? The possibilities are endless and based on a family’s individual lifestyle. Choose things that aren’t complicated, potentially dangerous, or particularly unpleasant, and tasks that don’t need to be done “just right.” Keep safety in mind. If the child has to stand on a stool or chair to do the task, make sure it’s a supervised activity. Never ask the child to cook something, even if it’s just toast, unless you’re right beside him.

At a minimum, a child aged four or five should be able to:
- Choose appropriate clothing and dress himself, including shoes (without tying laces)
- Place dirty clothing in hamper, and help collect it when it’s time to do laundry
- Brush teeth, wash hands, and wipe up any mess in the sink
- Feed pets with dry pet food
- Set the table with unbreakable items
- Wash vegetables and fruit, help with simple food preparation (no knives)
- Clean up after meals or snacks by disposing of trash and placing dishes on the kitchen counter
- Help with basic care for younger siblings – entertaining them for short periods, getting fresh diapers, even wiping runny noses
- Tidying up toys after play, with help and direction
- Simple yard/garden tasks such as picking up sticks before mowing, watering plants, weeding garden beds

Though at first the path toward teaching a young child to help with the family’s list of chores should be approached gently, it may surprise you how little time it takes for the child’s contribution to be of real value. If the work ethic is taught with love, a preschooler who announces with a bright smile that “I did it myself!” will take on additional responsibilities with confidence in years to come. Work is an unavoidable part of life, and parents must teach their children that it’s not something to dread, but a challenge that helps us grow.