Best Mom Tip #189: Phantom jobs

My little kids always want to help me when I’m cooking or cleaning. Although I appreciate their enthusiasm, they have very chubby little fingers and their motor skills suck.  Thus, they are not very effective workers.

Every mom I know has this same dilemma. You need to sweep, mop, dust, sort laundry, make dinner, clean the toilet, but your toddler or young preschooler is standing directly in your path and possibly undoing your work in an effort to help. My friend Rachel told me recently that every time she tries to sweep, her not-quite 2-year-old manages to walk through the pile of dirt and then plops down on top of it to pick the crumbs off the bottom of his feet. Cute, but not helpful. Also a little gross.

My solutions for stealing a few uninterrupted minutes of housework is to give my kids phantom jobs.  For instance, if people will be at our house in 20 minutes and I need to get the kitchen swept, I give my toddler the kid-sized broom and tell him to sweep the living room. He gets bored after about 5 minutes and I have to find the tiny broom to put it away (could be in the toilet by now), but at least the kitchen floor is clean-ish.

If we are making a meal I give them a plastic knife and a bowl of fruit and tell them to cut it up for the table. I’m talking already cut chunks of watermelon or blueberries or strawberries-soft fruits that don’t actually need to be cut and will not harm your kid if she eats it while “cutting.” And I don’t give them the whole bowl that they rest of us will be eating from because it is going to have kid goo in it by the time she’s finished.

I give them Clorox wipes (or a wet paper towel depending on the kid’s age and likelihood that the he might try to eat it) and tell them to wipe down all of the window sills. And if they finish that, I send them back in for the baseboards. Wipe down the kitchen chairs, clean all the light switches, wipe off all of the drawer pulls in the kitchen.  Really, you can have them wipe down any surface that you can think of and they feel really helpful. And, hey, I was never going to wipe down the baseboards anyway so that’s something that is actually cleaner than before.

The key is to send the adorably eager and totally unhelpful little one into an area that you are not trying to clean right that minute.  Need to vacuum in the living room? Their job is in the den. Need to clean the bathroom? Have them make the beds. Doing the laundry and your little one keeps mixing up the sorted piles? Put him in charge of a pile of his own laundry to distract him from the rest of it. Of course, if your helper is too little to be unsupervised their job will just have to be in a slightly different corner of your own work space.  Not ideal, but really, how long do you think your kid will want nothing more than to be right next to you while you do housework? I mean, I’m bored just typing about it. Take what you can get.

My grand plan doesn’t always work. Recently I sent my oldest son to go clean the stairs with some wipes. He is 5 and did a very thorough job. However, I did not check the status of his feet before he set off on his task. He very carefully cleaned each stair–and then stood on that damp,clean step to very carefully clean the one above it. When he was done, the stairs had dozens of big-boy sized muddy footprints all over them. They were actually far dirtier than they were before all of his hard work. Fortunately, the guests for that evening were coming for dinnertime so we just turned off the overhead light and the shadows covered the footprints until I could deal with it the next day.

Which, by the way, is another good way to prep your house for company. Just turn off the lights.

Anyway, you don’t want to crush their little spirits and their desire to help. It’s endearing, it reflects their willingness to be a part of the family team, and there are real household tasks that they need to learn as they get older. My oldest two kids (the muddy stair incident notwithstanding) are actually very helpful and can accomplish several jobs without my help or even supervision. They may not do it exactly like I would, but they get it done well enough. The little ones get their phantom jobs done feeling useful and if they did manage to clean something I am grateful that there are fewer tiny fingerprints on the windows or kitchen cabinets.

So, give it a whirl.  What could your kid help with that is safe and distracting?

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