By Jennifer Pitterle
There’s a wonderful saying I’ve heard about parenthood: “I’m not raising children; I’m raising grown-ups.” That is, one of our jobs as parents is to help our kids grow into confident, capable adults who can take care of themselves and the world around them. Of course, it’s important not to conflate this idea with the (incorrect) view that children are just small adults—they’re not. Childhood is precious, valuable, and has important work all its own. The gist of the mantra isn’t that we should treat children like adults; it’s that we should balance our nurturing of their childhood with giving them as much independence and autonomy as we can—so they become those capable grown-ups.
One of my favorite, concrete ways to help foster my children’s autonomy and independence is to give them plenty of practical life work at home. Childhood expert Dr. Maria Montessori said, “Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity, which is derived from a sense of independence.” What she called “practical life work” is those very skills: getting dressed, tying shoes, and so on.
Modeling by Mom and Dad
Who are our kids’ first teachers? You know the answer: It’s us! Children observe us going about our daily lives, and they absorb so much more than we might expect. Whenever possible, involve them in what you’re doing. At our house, the pattern looks something like this:
Let’s explore some strategies for setting up practical-life work for your kids, to help them find a sense of joy and confidence in their own achievements. After all, it’s the loudest chorus of early childhood: “I can do it myself!”
There are lots of ways kids can help in the kitchen. Here are a few of my favorites:
Pouring and Measuring
When you’re cooking and baking, let kids use the measuring cups and spoons—it’s a great introduction to math concepts. They can mix batter, set out ingredients, and sort things by wet, dry, etc. During play time, set out a simple pouring station where they can practice getting water from a pitcher to a cup—an essential motor skill.
Chopping and Cutting
It might feel scary to let small children help with cutting, but the sooner they get to practice—in a safe way—the more comfortable they’ll be! Start with sturdy fruits and vegetables that don’t roll around too much: apples that you’ve cut to a flat side; bananas, with or without the peel; cucumbers; or celery.
As with all practical-life work, offer tools that are scaled for children’s hands. All kids need a non-skid cutting board. Then, for very young toddlers, start with a wooden chopper. Graduate to a crinkle cutter (perfect for snacky banana or cucumber slices!). Finally, try a serrated plastic knife, designed for kids to practice a sawing motion. Older kids will move to real metal knives with ease. (And hopefully this goes without saying, but…supervise!)
Baby tip! For your littlest chefs, cut chunky banana slices with the peel still on. Score the peel in one spot, and let them peel each slice for a snack.
Organizing and Putting Away
My almost-3-year-old has one favorite job in the whole world: unpacking groceries! She likes to get each item out of the bag and find its spot in the pantry. We get to chat about food, and she works on core skills like sorting, finding patterns, and carrying heavy objects (what Maria Montessori called “maximum effort”).
Tidying and Cleaning
There’s a reason toy vacuum cleaners are a perennial best-selling Christmas gift. Kids want to do what their grown-ups are doing. Let them help—even if it’s not quite the way you would do it!
Picking Up Toys
Set boundaries so the expectations are clear. Instead of, “Pick up your room,” be specific: “I need you to put all of the Legos in this box.” Or, “I put your stuffed animals from the living room in this basket. Please put them away in their home in your room.”
Sorting, folding, moving clothes from the washer to the dryer—involve your kids (even the very little ones!) whenever you can. Put preschoolers in charge of items like socks or dish towels, and maybe offer them their own kid-scale drying rack and clothespins.
A tiny whisk broom is the perfect way to sweep up crumbs under chairs and tables.
Before they could even talk, my kiddos loved to help water our houseplants. Try a small spritz bottle, a pitcher, or even a “mushroom duster”—a classic Montessori tool that’s traditionally given to the very youngest helpers.
As humans, our sense of dignity and capableness comes so deeply from the way we take care of ourselves. It feels so good to brush our own hair, wash our own bodies, and put on our own socks. As early as we can, let’s give kids the chance to do those things for themselves—so they know, in their hearts, that they are worthy of self-love and in charge of their bodies.
Set up a spot in the bedroom or bathroom with a child-height surface. Add a mirror. Add a water source, whether that’s a refillable pitcher or bowl, or a spritz bottle. Set up your child’s hairbrush or comb; toothpaste and toothbrush; and washcloths. Let the independence commence!
Our family built a simple grooming station using some plywood and an old mixing bowl that we could clean and refill with water. Our kids could use it for washing hands after playing outside or before meals; brushing hair after bath time; or just dancing in the mirror, and building that sense of self-confidence that we all long for!
Like a grooming station, you can set up a simple drinking water station in the kitchen. Use an inexpensive glass or plastic dispenser with a spigot that children can control on their own (filling a cup to the right level is a wonderful skill to practice!). Add cups, and a towel for wiping up spills—there will be plenty. And that’s okay.
Jennifer Pitterle is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Pre-parenthood, she was a longtime editor for a lifestyle magazine group. She writes about parenting, nature, children's literacy, and more. She's always working with her children to bring a sense of natural enchantment to their suburban home and backyard.