My son is fiercely, fiercely attached to me. To say he’s a momma’s boy would be an understatement. That’s not saying he won’t willingly leave me when he needs to, but for most things, he wants me by his side. He’d rather sit in my lap than his own chair; he’d rather play with me than by himself; he’d rather me do everything with him than with someone else.

I know he finds comfort and security with me, and with time, he’ll forget all about me and beg me to just leave him alone. To be honest, I don’t mind the snuggles and the hugs, even if they come in the form of nudges, jumps, and tackles sometimes. But in spite of me accepting this is our current reality, it makes it hard for me to see when he could be doing things on his own or for himself. While I’m happy to be there for him, it’s also my job to foster independence and responsibility as it’s appropriate.

I’m usually a little behind the mark when it comes to letting my son do things for himself. It takes me a couple of weeks (or months) to realize what he’s now capable of, like putting on his own jacket or putting his plate in the sink. Eventually I catch on and encourage the behaviors as much as I can.

We’ve now gotten to the point where he has actual “chores” – a set of responsibilities and jobs that we all know he can do on his own. For the most part it’s been a natural transition, as like most kids, he loves to be my helper. He’ll willingly help me sweep, vacuum, dust, and scrub. He doesn’t mind being my laundry assistant or my dish-unloader.

The difference now that he’s 3 years old is that we’re trying to actually make these productive acts of helpfulness, not just another form of entertainment.

One of my son’s preschool teachers shared some words of wisdom during parent-teacher conferences a few weeks ago (yes, they have those in the year two class — it still makes me chuckle). She said that if it was important to us, now is the time to have him start doing chores, like making his bed and setting the table. She pointed out that this age is a good window of time for them to not only learn how to do it, but accept it as part of their role in the family. (My words, not hers, but great advice.)

Her wisest suggestion of all? Don’t go behind them and “fix” things. Otherwise they’ll just learn that you’re going to do it anyways. I love the idea of instilling chores as a natural responsibility — something you do because you’re a member of the family, not just to earn an allowance. (Here is a great list with a variety of different perspectives on chores and allowances.)

So now as we go through our days, I try to make note of what my son might be capable of doing on his own and what things are important to us as a family. We don’t have lists or charts or rewards or penalties, but each day we teach him how these things are done and let him start trying to do them himself.

I try to “set the stage,” so to speak, so that he can successfully complete certain tasks and doesn’t give up due to repeated failures. That’s not to say that we don’t give him plenty of opportunity to mess up — we absolutely do. We choose tasks we know he can already do, or else we make adjustments that will make it easier for him to do them on his own.

For instance, we use plastic bowls and plates whenever possible since he has to sort of “throw” the dishes in to the sink. This way, I don’t worry about anything breaking.

We’ve taught him to move a stool or chair to help him reach something or perform a task.

Instead of just letting him run around with the broom, I show him how to scoop the dirt into the tray and throw it into the trashcan.

We have hooks and baskets at his level so he can hang up his jacket or put his shoes away, and instead of just letting him randomly toss things in the dryer, it’s his job to actually put all the wet clothes in.

I let him see the chores I do, and tell him what and how I’m doing them so he’ll learn when the time comes. Sometimes he takes the lead and tells me he wants to try, and other times I wait until I think he can do it and tell him to give it a whirl. Sometimes it makes more of a mess before it helps, and sometimes it causes push back because he just wants me to do it. But the pride on his face when he does something or when I thank him for helping is worth the extra time, patience, and mess it takes to start instilling a sense of responsibility in him.

My goal is to keep paying attention to what he might be capable of doing and giving him the space to do it. It’s hard to remember sometimes that he’s growing up and developing and maturing when he just wants to be my buddy and snuggle in my lap, but he’s often able to do so much more than I’d guess.

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