01 December 2011

Independence = Responsibility

That's right. In this house, if you are a fiercely independent three-year-old boy, you get added responsibilities. Because that's just the way things work in life, right?!

With every new step toward independence, we've always been ready to bump up Sheridan's level of participation around the house. Even things as simple as:

Hanging up his coat when he comes home. We had this "dead" space in his room, it's too small or in-the-way to put furniture or anything else next to his door, so about a year ago I bought those easy-remove hooks and put them at toddler level. Now, whenever it's time to go outside, he grabs his own coat. And when he takes it off, he hangs it up himself.

Putting his books on his shelf. Sheridan has a small bookshelf in the living room (we try to rotate the books regularly, meaning I bring books from his big bookshelf in his room out to the living room so he has easier access to them - note to self, I need to rotate them more frequently). This small bookshelf allows him to see everything, and he's really good about grabbing a book (or 2 or 3) and putting them back when he's done.

Putting his hats away. We have limited space in our house, so that means a small corner of the bookshelf in his bedroom doubles as his hat shelf. This isn't really about pure neatness, it's just about Sheridan knowing where his hats belong, and he can get one (and put it away) all by himself.

Setting the table. Sheridan loves to help set the table. He grabs the plates from the cupboard one-by-one, puts them on the table, and puts out the silverware, too. And this is a prime example of an activity that requires that we, as parents, need to get over it let go. Yes, Sheridan has broken a few bowls and a couple plates by accidentally dropping them. But these are the kind of activities and skills that toddlers are hungry for! He wants to explore, and do what we do, and copy us, and try everything. If we told him no (out of legitimate concern that he might break something), not only does it mean it will take him longer to learn (because he gets no practice), but I also think that by the time he's "old enough" to do it, he won't want to (and we'd have to "force" him to help). As far as Sheridan is concerned, helping us is a privilege, one he is eager to do. So, it's worth a few broken dishes to me. Or try plastic for a while!

This is the most settings Sheridan has ever done. He set our Thanksgiving dinner table all by himself. After some negotiation Gary finally received utensil so he didn't have to eat with his hands.

Sweeping. Yes. Sweeping. Whenever we sweep, Sheridan gets excited and asks to help. So I found a toddler-sized broom online and we pull it out whenever he wants to help. Which typically means that he sweeps the pile of dirt you've created and spreads it back around the room. So clean up takes three times as long, but it's fine.

Oh, and see the washer/dryer back there? He loves to help switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer.

Everything has a place. The thing I love about these bins (thank you IKEA!!!!) is that Sheridan can just dump stuff in when he cleans up. It just so happens that he typically puts items back in the bin from which he grabbed them, but it's not about making everything neat... it's just about putting things in a place where they belong. Same with the shoes - we just line them up on top of the shelf (yes, I'm aware that's simply too many pair of shoes for a three-year-old to own, but he has wardrobe needs).

But don't rule out neatness all together... We do have two shelves in our living room that are kept nice and tidy. Partly because we don't keep much on the shelves, and partly because Sheridan typically takes only one item from the shelf at a time. When he's done, he puts it right back in it's original spot. So it sort of stays neat all on its own. Sheridan has done a great job learning that he can choose what he wants to do, play until his heart is content (which can range from 2 minutes to 34 minutes, you ever know), and he will clean up independently (most of the time).

Now, I don't want you to think that Sheridan is some strange alien child from outer space that always follows directions, always cleans up with a smile, and always does these things independently. And I don't want you to think that my house is always neat and tidy. Absolutely. Not. Sometimes it looks like a tornado came through. And Sheridan's really good about following through on his responsibilities much of the time, but he has a stubborn streak and when he doesn't want to do it, he doesn't. want. to do it. So sometimes we guide him, sometimes we help him. But we are consistent, even when it is difficult. He knows his responsibilities (e.g., that toys need to be put away when you're done with them). And we don't do "chores" or anything like that. We just try to make it part of our every day routine so Sheridan gradually can contribute to our home and family...

His favorite contribution: Cooking! Sheridan makes a mean pizza. And toast, and eggs, and crockpot fried rice... he likes to help as much as possible in the cooking department.

The Learning Tower is one of the best kid-gear investments I ever made.

Don't worry. He knows to never touch the stove/oven and that he can only look through the window (here, he's watching our salmon broil - one of his favorite foods)

I will admit the kitchen is one area where I need to really let go and let him explore and try more (in terms of food prep). Typically it's hard because I'm on a tight timeline to get dinner made or get him out the door to school, and I know if I let him crack an egg I won't have time to change his clothes. But I need to learn to slow down more so he can get those new experiences that will be messy. The other morning he actually cracked his first egg (behind my back while I was getting something out of the fridge). And he was so gentle with it that it barely cracked and didn't make a mess. The whisking of the eggs is his favorite, and can get messy, but I love that one day his new-found responsibility will mean I have my own personal, live-in chef!

What responsibilities does your little one have around the house? I'd love to get new ideas for how to help Sheridan work on both his independence/responsibilities, and especially those that double as practice for important developmental skills. Please share!


  1. I love this! You all are doing a fantastic job and I'm certainly taking some hints. And I *will* be looking into that tower. M loves to help cook as well and the stool scares me sometimes because it moves easily.

    We have her help to sort clothes (as well as the transferring you mentioned), put trash/recycling away ( yay for learning the difference!), and put away silverware, to name a few. I love that we can give her complicated commands now and she can follow through. She feels accomplished (and we can be more lazy). ;-)

  2. Lurve this entire post. I could use a little extra help if Sheridan wants to come lend a hand!

  3. Whoa, I think I have nothing useful to contribute here! Maybelle does some of this--she's quite good a putting toys and books back, she loves sweeping, and she's just begun trying to set the table--but this is all thanks to Biffle and to school. The one person in this household who 1) does virtually nothing in the kitchen, and 2) does NOT reliably clean things up is ME.

    I'm going to see about the tower thing as a Christmas present.

  4. Our daughter Tess, age 6, is in kindergarten at a local Montessori school and their focus on responsbile independence seems very in keeping with your strategy. The children do everything they possible can by themselves. And they make their own decisions about what "work" to choose, when to have snack, and other things. (However, guidance is given to all kids on how much snack to take - but it's not teacher directed. There are signs that indicate you can have 5 of these or 1 scoop of that. The kids also have a set routine to follow about washing up before snack and cleaning the area afterwards. They thrive on the routine without being told. And my daughter picks out 10 cards each day with pictures of works (from a stack of, say, 20 that the teacher chooses for her to make sure she mixes up what she's working on and getting education on a broad range of things.) At home we've modeled this approach. So Tess and her younger brother (aged 5) have their own "dish cubby" with plates, glasses and utensils and they set the table themselves. Picking up what they were working on before getting something else out is another rule. A lot of your strategies are ones we also follow. It used to be a struggle to get the kids to the table to eat. But telling them to set the table before dinner, giving them a task to be responsible for changed the whole dynamic. And the school is wonderful in leading and reinforcing this strategy that is working so well with both our daughter and son. Tess is she's reading now, really reading, and writing words herself from oral dictation, and even writing beginner sentences. Her behavior is about as close to perfect as you'd want, which was a big change from where she was at at a previous school modeled on a more "average" classroom, that is: largely group learning settings vs. individually directed learning, blocks of topics (first math at 10, then language at 11, etc.) and less independence in essentially all things. But she still has circle and group learning at times, and recess with all her friends. Her teachers told us she's "a role model" for other kids. I'm not saying Montessori is a fit for every family or every child. One could have the reverse experience as ours. But I thought I'd write about our experience since their philosophy is similar to yours - in terms of responsible independence fostering growth and development - and that style fits our Tess's learning style exactly. Thanks for the blog. I just found you through NDSS.

  5. This was a great post! I have a lot of letting go to do! Thanks for sharing!!!