The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 4, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Cleaning with kids a learning process

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — "Put it back, bubba!"

I'm so high-pitched that I'm almost chirping, but it works. My toddler and I are tossing crayons into a giant tub of art supplies.

I throw a broken bit, he throws a broken bit. I sweep a handful into a pile, he sweeps a handful into a pile. I stand up to get a better look, he stands up to get a better look.

He's such a little parrot right now, acting out whatever he sees or hears, and I'm using it to my full advantage. Because he also has a little bit of Tasmanian devil in him at the moment, this means he's mimicking a mother who's in a constant state of straightening.

So it was no surprise when our art supplies were dumped across the floor, and it was no surprise when I stopped what I was doing so we could clean it up, once he'd finished playing.

See, that's where I've changed my method this time around.

With my first child, I would sequester her so I could clean without being interrupted for another disaster. The idea that she could help -- even at the age of 18 months -- was so outlandish and foreign.

After all, it seemed like I would finish cleaning up one mess just in time to find two more messes waiting. With her "help" I could be guaranteed to never finish anything; we would be cleaning up all day.

It was and is so much simpler to clean the room in one quick swoop than to guide a child through the process. I can fold a whole load of towels in the time it takes a toddler to carry one washcloth to the linen closet. I can sweep the entire kitchen in the plodding moments it takes a little one to unhinge the dust pan from the broom.

The knowledge that I can do it so much faster by myself has made it difficult to see the bigger picture.

Kids need practice. Toddlers require assistance. Preschoolers can take responsibility. The chores will keep coming at them their whole lives, and if they're always being shooed away because they make the chore more troublesome than it already is, they're not learning anything.

With my newest little mess-maker in residence, I'm finally learning my lesson. My relaxed grip on the state of the house could have a lot to do with the fact that having three kids has also relaxed my expectations. Our house will not be pristine, and that's just a fact.

But I like to think that I'm growing as a parent and teacher every time I let a chore take infinitely longer than necessary, just for the benefit of my toddler's knowing how things work.

He hands me dishes from the dishwasher each morning as we straighten up the kitchen. He stabs the vacuum cleaner across the dining room floor, missing most of the crumbs. He dumps bathroom trash bins into the waiting bag. He wipes spills on tables and counters.

And he scoops crayons into the art supply tub.

I lift a handful of crayons; he lifts a handful of crayons. I retrieve one from under the couch; he retrieves one from under the couch. I use my foot to drag a pile closer -- he uses his foot to kick a pile across the room, and storms through the leftovers like they're a heap of leaves.

It's a process. But it's a good one.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog,