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DEAR CATHIE—

I have always done everything for my children. I just thought that is what good parents did! I thought it showed my love. But now that they are growing up, and I am learning more about the Montessori Method from their school and my reading, I understand that I need to expect more from them and let them help around the house. This is both a practical and a mindset change! Can you help me get started?

—AN EXCITED MOM

Dear Mom,

Congratulations on making the decision to afford your children more responsibility, and opportunities to contribute to the family. This is a key concept in happy and healthy families, and you cannot start too young. The key is to begin small, teach each skill to your children, and then have consistent expectations that the job has become their responsibility and is no longer yours. Let it happen naturally, as the child has the skills to take on a task!

Let’s choose one activity to use as an example: bath time. Your goal is for your child to learn to take a bath independently: from getting pajamas to leaving the bathroom as he found it. This is a process that will take years to learn, and we certainly are not advocating that you leave your child alone in a tub of water until he is mature enough to be safe.

Taking a bath requires a child to do a series of steps that will complete the goal. The child needs to: get pajamas and bring them into the bathroom; turn on the bath water at the correct temperature; undress; get in the bath; turn off the water, when the bath reaches the correct height/ temperature: wash the body; rinse off the soap; wash hair, if needed; rinse hair; get out of the bath; dry off; put on pajamas; let the water out of the tub; dry any spills; hang the towel; and put the dirty clothes in the hamper.

How can we begin to teach a child all those steps? Begin today to turn over one step at a time to the child. Do not do anything for your child that she can do herself.

Be sure your child can find her pajamas in the same place each night. (I always put them under the child’s pillow, and my children wore the same pair of pajamas until they were dirty. This saved on laundry and made life simpler for our family.) Say to your child, “Now that you are getting older, you are ready to start learning how to take your own bath. Please get your pajamas and bring them into the bathroom and then come and get me.” That is now a task for the child every night! You will need to be sure it is done, but you will never do it for her again.

You can turn on the water until she is old enough to do it herself. You can place a mark on the chrome that shows how far to turn the handle on the faucet. (A permanent marker works well.) This is especially important, if the turning the water on also controls the water temperature! Be there while the child does it for as long as it takes for you to be certain that she can manage it herself. This is one of the more difficult steps in the process, and you will need to be involved in it longer.

Teach your child how to wash. How does the soap get onto the washcloth? You may need to do that part, but they can do the actual washing. First you will be there while she is washing, watching to be sure she is doing it correctly. In time, you will come back and check and “help” to do the difficult parts.

The key is to begin small, teach each skill to your children, and then have consistent expectations that the job has become their responsibility and is no longer yours.

Washing hair is one part I helped with for many years. I checked to be sure the hair had all the soap removed. Eventually, she will wash her entire body herself! Even a very young child can rinse off alone. You may need to talk her through the process, check and be sure she rinsed all the spots and gotten all the soap off (especially in the folds of the skin), but you do not need to do it for her.

Once the child is rinsed, she can open the drain to let the water out of the tub. She can get out of the tub and begin to dry off. (Be sure to teach her to “hold on” as she exits the tub — as wet is often slippery.) You can come and help as needed. (I always said I needed a hug when they were in the towel, and I checked that my child was dry before putting on her pajamas). Dressing is a skill that children begin to learn as early as 18 months. By four, this is totally the child’s responsibility.

Drying the bathroom may require you to point out areas of water. Some people prefer to do this before the child is in pajamas, as she may get wet doing it! Children can hang up the towel if the hook is at an appropriate height for them. Hooks are now easy to buy and can be moved as the child grows!

A child as young as 18 months can learn to put her dirty clothes in the hamper, and that is an easy job to turn over to the child immediately.

When you are beginning to teach a series of skills, discuss the sequence of steps in the process with your child. What comes next? Can you do that part yourself? Always talk to your child about how she will be able to do this part in a few months/years This sets the tone that you know/expect that your child will ultimately be a self-sufficient person.

You can apply the same principles to any task. Let your child carry the laundry downstairs; put the toilet paper in the closet, and later onto the toilet paper holder, or put the vegetables in the veggie drawer when you come home with groceries. A child of three can even put three carrots in each small plastic container for lunch. Then, when packing lunch for himself, he simply removes a container.

Have fun letting your children take on more and more responsibility and let us know how it is going! ¢

Cathie Perolman is a reading specialist, elementary educator, author, consultant, and creator of educational materials for primary and elementary students. Check out her new downloadable materials on her website cathieperolman.com.

For more than three decades, she has dedicated her energies to improving reading for all youngsters. She is the author of Practical Special Needs for the Montessori Method: A Handbook for 3-6 Teachers and Homeschoolers published by the Montessori Foundation (available through montessori.org.) She is a regular contributor to Tomorrow’s Child and Montessori Leadership magazines.

Cathie Perolman
Cathie Perolman

Catherine Perolman is an experienced Montessori guide at the 3-6 level. She is a Montessori teacher educator and publisher of educational materials. She can be contacted through Tomorrow’s Child at: tcmag@montessori.org