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Toddler Tips

Realistic Expectations

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 4, July-August 2006, pp. 174-177

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

When my toddler was a baby I felt that I had an excuse for not doing many household chores because his needs were clearly so immediate. Now my son is two years old and I feel guilty about my untidy house. I seem to have even less time these days to devote to the necessary tasks. How do other mothers cope with getting the housework done while at the same time meeting the needs of a toddler?

Mother's Response

Yesterday, I found my toothbrush in the living room, my hair brush in the toilet, and my clean laundry systematically shoved through the baby gate and down onto the basement stairs. That was the work of my beautiful 13-month-old daughter. The toys and books that were strewn from one end of my home to the other belong to my wonderful three-year-old son.

I used to feel guilty about the condition of my house, too, but I asked myself, "Why do I feel this way?" I decided that I didn't want my husband to think I wasn't working as hard as he was at his demanding job. I didn't want my drop-in neighbors to think we were slobs, and when my mother visited, I didn't want to see that look on her face as she picked up toys from the floor. I realized that I had unrealistic expectations of what is considered "acceptable."

Thankfully, my husband frequently reminds me how quickly our children will grow up and how much I will miss nursing them. He also has no problem with the clutter that reminds us that children live in this house! This really helps me keep my focus in the right place. I don't have to impress anyone with a shiny sink or freshly vacuumed carpet. It's simply more important to me to be with my children.

That said, I have found a system that helps me keep on top of the housework better than I used to because just choosing not to worry about the mess isn't really enough. I have one main housekeeping task that I do each day. I try to get it done early when the children are more content to play on their own for a few minutes at a time.

Sandy Freitas
Mooresville NC USA

Mother's Response

I have found that the best way to get my household chores done is to involve my children in them. When my son was two years old he started following me around pushing his old walker and pretending to vacuum while I was vacuuming. So, I bought an inexpensive carpet sweeper and shortened the handle. Now, he has his own cleaner and he is actually picking dirt up with it. When I am dusting or cleaning windows, I give my son a clean, dry rag and he follows behind me.

Toddlers are really good at sorting laundry (but not necessarily folding). They can put all of the socks in one pile and all of the towels in another. Often I let my toddler help me for about 15 minutes. This way, he gets the attention he needs from me and then usually finds a toy to play with while I quickly finish up whatever task I am doing.

There are still some cleaning tasks that I can't do with a toddler around, such as mopping (I don't want my children walking or crawling on wet floors), so I wait until they are sleeping or playing in another room with my husband. I also try to stay on top of the clutter by loading the dishwasher after each meal, sorting the mail every day, and having the children help pick up toys before bedtime.

Even when I follow these tips, I have learned that my house is never going to be as clean as it was before I had children. Sometimes I just have to let go and realize that it is more important to spend time with my children doing fun things than worrying about how clean my house is.

Jody Corbett
Chandler AZ USA

Mother's Response

One day while watching a news broadcast I saw something really great: a big poster on the door to a flat that said, "Here, children are more important than the household chores." This phrase doesn't help at all to get the house more tidy, but it makes people more understanding about it being untidy!

I loved the idea and adopted it immediately. It's my way of telling visitors that my untidy house is nothing but a sign that I've been taking care of what matters most -- my children. I feel proud of my untidy house because it's as though I'm advocating for children's needs and saying, "You see, you don't need to feel bad if your house is untidy, you can even be proud of it!"

Sophie Adam
Liège Belgium

Mother's Response

You're absolutely right that life with a two-year-old can leave you longing for the quiet, peaceful days with a newborn!

How you approach this question probably depends on why you feel guilty. Do you simply have very high expectations for yourself, or are you responding to displeasure from other family members? If it's your own standards you're not meeting, perhaps you could try relaxing them. Understand that this stage won't last forever, and that it really is okay for things to be less than immaculate for a while.

If, on the other hand, other people in the family are bothered by the mess, could you try asking them for more help? Partners and older children can step in and take over some of the chores that you are not getting done. Even your two-year-old can start learning to help. Try keeping a basket in each room to stow toys in and teach him to put things away before he takes out more.

It may seem as though this creates more work for you, and sometimes it does, but the idea is that eventually your son will start taking responsibility for helping to keep things clean and tidy. That's the theory, anyway!

Ruth Hersey
Ft. Pierce FL USA

Mother's Response

This issue is a matter of deciding your priorities. My mother decided that a clean house was more important and let us cry while she cleaned. My husband and I have decided that it's more important to take a walk or bake cookies with our children than to have a spotless house. When they are grown up, we will have plenty of time for household chores.

I have also found that it's important to evaluate methods of organization. Sometimes little changes can make a difference.

Petra Voskamp
Rome Italy

Mother's Response

A toddler's needs are as important and urgent as a baby's in the sense that the toddler's physical safety and emotional development can be at stake. Watching an active, moving, curious toddler is a full-time job.

I think you can help yourself by discussing what you think you "should" be doing regarding housework with your partner, family members, and close friends. By giving expression to your sense of frustration and guilt, you may better understand the issues involved and engage others in a dialogue that can help your style of coping and making decisions.

You might try to do an operational analysis of the work that needs to be done and decide on a program of minimizing and prioritizing the work.

You might also initiate a reality check with your family members as to what they expect and what is realistic to expect of yourself. If it is possible to get some help with chores, it would be a worthwhile investment.

The toddler stage passes so quickly. It's worthwhile to try to tolerate a more relaxed housekeeping standard rather than to miss out on being there during this formative time. In Hebrew, these years are called the "soft age" or "tender age," giving verbal acknowledgment to the importance of these years in forming the person that the toddler will become.

Donna Ron

Mother's Response

I have always been on top of my housecleaning, but I find it harder to get it all done with an 18-month-old who wants to be exactly where I am no matter what. Recently I started a new plan of action, maybe it will help you as well.

I decided what chores needed to be done each week and assigned a certain day to do each task. For example, on Monday I dust and my husband vacuums, on Tuesdays all the laundry is done, on Wednesday the kitchen gets cleaned, and on Thursday the bathroom is cleaned. I find it easier to do the kitchen and bathroom cleaning when my son is asleep, otherwise I am wrestling him as I mop the floors or scrub the tub. The dishes are done each night; sometimes I wash while my son feeds himself and I can dry and put them away after he is asleep. If you have a dishwasher, load and start it and your husband can be in charge of emptying it each night or in the morning before he goes to work.

I have decided to treat these chores as regular appointments and it makes it easier just to do a little each day -- plus I get Friday, Saturday, and Sunday off from cleaning!

Carol Jester
Cincinnati OH USA

Mother's Response

I feel your frustration. When my daughter was approaching two, I tried to get more and more done only to find that, just as when she was tiny, there were days I couldn't get anything done at all. It got to be really annoying! My expectations had grown along with her abilities, but I hadn't taken into account the constant nature of watching over a busy toddler, or all the extra tasks she generated through exploring her world.

It helped to involve my toddler in my household activities. I found that she loved to imitate me, so I bought some new sponges and brushes for her to use while I used mine. They had to be the real thing, mind you, plastic imitations marketed for children didn't work. I found safe cleaning solutions such as baking soda for scrubbing (works great on toilets, bathtubs, and sinks) and vinegar and water spray for glass and surfaces. I showed her how to do each task and just expected her to do it with me. I didn't ask her, as she'd say "No!" but if I just handed her the brush she'd scrub. Everything took longer, but she was happy and I ended up happy too.

The other thing that really helped was to create some structure to our days. I'm not naturally a "do things at the same time every day" type of person, but it helped my daughter if I made an effort to have a routine. (Of course, staying flexible is essential!) It made our days predictable and gave me a chance to build in some time for cleaning up. Look for ways that you can develop a routine that you'll both enjoy.

Cynthia Wick
North Yorks UK

Mother's Response

At first, like you, I justified leaving the housework until last because I was taking care of other, more urgent, needs. Eventually, having an orderly home also became a need of my family.

The chaos didn't bother me at first, but I realized that I am calmer when things are more orderly. Listen to your heart. It sounds like there was a time when you were able to "let things go," but now you also need more order. Trying to find the balance that works for you and your family is a serious challenge that many of us face. Sometimes we pay someone to help us, even if that means we will have to do without other things.

I've discovered that making housework fun for my children is very helpful. For example, sometimes we pretend that we are digging for buried treasure. (The digging is cleaning and the treasure is an orderly room!) Other times I ask them to pick up 10 things. When they're finished, they tell me what they picked up and get a big hug and kiss.

To this day, housework is my greatest challenge. But I do my best and hope that my children (and husband) will forgive the mess.

Rivka Matitya
Jerusalem Israel

Mother's Response

There is precious little time for housekeeping with two small children. Adjusting my attitude to one of confidence that I can achieve my daily goals has helped. When I look at my "to do" list and wish not to address it, I tell myself, "If it is to be, it is up to me." That gets me back on track to do the work at hand. It takes effort to engage my toddler with an activity nearby so that I can do the work, but when he is playing near me while I work, he is contented.

During the time I have scheduled for a given task, I focus on that task, not fretting about how much other work I have to do because I know that those things will be addressed during the times when they are scheduled. On days that I don't follow my schedule, my son picks up on my tension and my lack of focused attention on him during those one-on-one times, and he becomes cranky.

Amy Oates
Pinehurst NC USA

Mother's Response

Beginning at about age two, my children loved helping with housework if they were allowed to use real cleaning supplies. My children love finding "dust bunnies" under furniture and it always turns into a game about who can find the biggest "dust bunny" when we dust under furniture and beds.

My children also enjoy toting the laundry to the basement in a laundry bag and love to push the washing machine buttons. Though every cleaning job will take longer with a toddler's help, it truly is fun for them to be included in household chores. It might make it more fun for you, too.

Sara Sottrel
Wheaton IL USA

Mother's Response

I have always felt that a two-year-old is often more needy than a baby, albeit in different ways. Tidiness and two-year-olds simply don't mix. With a baby I could catch up during naptime, but by two years the input was continual. My two-year-old needed space to play: a tidy room is empty and no fun at all.

To help me keep my sanity, we had a toy-free room where adults could be invited in or where my husband and I could snatch some peace in the evenings (if allowed!).

Involving my toddler in simple chores also helped. We had a fun "Mary Poppins" type time before bed where we sang while we tidied up. He loved loading the washing machine, mopping a floor, preparing food, or throwing dirty clothes downstairs.

My husband is an exceedingly tidy person and found it hard at first, but discussing options and needs helped him to understand the problems I faced. I didn't want the scenario that had blighted my own childhood when all toys had to be put away before Dad came home; his coming was much less welcome because the fun had to stop.

It's difficult not to feel guilty if the washing up has built up to mountainous proportions and no one has any clean clothes. When this happened to me I kept one thing in mind: people before things!

Jill Unwin
Berks UK

Mother's Response

When my son was a newborn, I let things around the house slide quite a bit. Recovering from an emergency cesarean, working on our breastfeeding relationship, and trying to sleep when I got the chance came first and foremost those first months of our seriously changed lives.

Now, my son is nearing two years old and the house could still use a bit of tidying up! But this is how I see it: running after a toddler and trying to keep my family fed, entertained, and happy is still first and foremost in my life. If I don't get to the vacuuming as often as I "should," well then, who cares? Most of my friends are parents, too, so they understand. When I really cannot wait any longer to clean, I've found that my toddler loves to help me. I have fun music playing while we clean, and he feels so proud to help.

I know I am making it sound easier than it is, but I just do what I can when I can, and I try not to worry. We moms have to be less critical of ourselves during all stages of child development.

Renae Chaves
Cranston RI USA

Mother's Response

Weekly organization may help you. For instance, on Monday clean the floor, on Tuesday clean the bath, and so on and so forth. This way, you have just one thing to do every day and at the end of the week everything is done. You can do the housework together with your toddler. Children love to feel helpful and are proud to tell people that they cleaned something, even if they really just spread water everywhere on the floor while you were cleaning. This works for me because it keeps my toddler busy and it takes just five minutes at the end to clean the mess.

Doing something fun with my toddler before and after doing the housework is something I've found to be very helpful. When I have simple tasks planned for the day, I invite a friend over to play with my toddler. If I have greater chores, I try to arrange for my child to go to a friend's home to play.

Of course, being satisfied with lower standards is useful. I just do housework very fast -- the results are not the same as before I was a mother, but I remember the most important work I am doing is raising my three children. Dust will always be here to clean, but my children will be adults sooner than I think!

Ruth Cantoni
Pradamano Udine Italy

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