Child Labor

Jessica Patton Pellegrino
Helping Out Can Be Encouraged Early–with the Right Tools
“If they can walk, they can work.” This is one of best bits of child-rearing advice I’ve acquired—and put to good use—thus far. I’m pretty sure this pearl came from Vicki Hoefle, creator and director of Parenting on Track. If she didn’t say it you should check her out, anyway, because there are dozens more where that came from. So, how this translates is that the younger a child is when they are given ways to help around the house, the more willing they’ll be to pitch in for the duration of their years under your roof. If instead you act as your kid’s hand servant until they’re “old enough” for chores, then insist upon their 10th or 13th birthday that it’s high time they vacuum or mow the lawn, and that you’re not their maid (which you have been, willingly, as far as they’re concerned, until this moment), they will be hard-pressed to see the benefit of this new arrangement—with resulting power struggles, bribes and requisite door slamming.

However, if you encourage your little ones to take up a rag or a dustpan at two or three years old, your kid feels like a working member of the machine that is your household—and they are likely clambering to help at this age. Many a well-intentioned parent responds by providing a play kitchen and a vacuum that sounds like it’s popping corn rather than living up to its name.

I was in the market for a wee wooden stove myself when introduced to both Parenting on Track and the notions of Maria Montessori, who believed it is the role of educators (and parents, as our children’s first teachers) to heed a child’s wish to “Help me do it by myself.” In a Montessori classroom, a student sets her own place at the snack table with small plates, drinking glasses and utensils—no plastic sippy cups here. If she spills while pouring water from the kid-sized glass pitcher, she fetches the mop. She cuts fruit and bread, serves her snack mates, and washes and dries her own dishes … and does all of this, including using a vegetable knife, with ease and confidence by 3 1/2. It’s pretty amazing to witness a roomful of shorties doing stuff that plenty of adults haven’t mastered (ever accidentally grate your knuckles instead of the cheese? No? Never mind).

While the sinks, cabinets and coat hooks in my house still require a stepstool, we’ve attempted to bring other things down to my 4-year-old daughter’s level. She has a drawer for her dishes and a designated low shelf in the fridge (replete with little pitcher). She helps clean and cook. Admittedly this calls for close observation, and patience and shoving my hands in my pockets so I won’t jump in to “help” (i.e., get the job done more quickly and less messily) unless she asks. But if the payoff is a teenager who cooks dinner on occasion and takes for granted her permanent position on the chore wheel, not to mention is able to maintain her own living environment by the time she moves out of mine, it’s well worth it.

I was surprised at how difficult it was to find oven mitts that actually protect small hands from heat. Lots of fake little potholders are available, logically, given all those fake little stoves. I understand why libel-shy manufacturers wouldn’t want to appear to encourage kids to touch hot stuff, but I contend that un-insulated mitts, with their illusion of protection, are actually more dangerous for inquisitive junior chefs. I commissioned a pair (and an apron as well, all in a sassy mermaid print) from Get Thready and ended up with kitchen apparel far cuter than I could have found commercially. And recently, I saw a catalog called For Small Hands that features modestly priced, sturdy gear for indoor and outdoor use. The kid is so getting a carpet sweeper from Santa.