While re-reading Beverly Cleary's wonderful Ramona books, I was struck by how much more independent children were back in the 50s and 60s. Ramona, a 5-year-old kindergartener, is told one day to walk herself several blocks to school, alone. She even stays home alone and watches the clock to know what time to leave, with her mother admonishing her to make sure to close the door on her way out.
Things may have changed a lot since the early Ramona books, but that doesn't mean that our little ones can't do anything by themselves. Being a lazy mom, I'm always on the lookout for something else my 3-year-old can do on her own.
Below are five things preschoolers should be able to handle. They're really capable of much more -- just visit a Montessori classroom if you want to see the many independent activities tykes can handle. What they can do is mainly a function of parents' preparation and patience in showing them how and letting them practice.
There's no doubt that there are more messes when they do for themselves, but it's worth it. Over the course of a few months, many activities will go from being more work when they do it alone to something you never have to think about anymore.
1) Brush teeth.
I like to give do a second pass on her teeth, but she basically knows the drill.
Preparation: Step stool at sink, kid-friendly toothpaste and brush within reach.
Caution: Make sure your child knows the difference between hot and cold faucets. Keep your water heater set at no higher than 120 degrees to prevent scalding if she does get mixed up.
2) Self-serve at breakfast.
Oatmeal, pancakes, cereal -- kids know just how they like these foods and can often have you jumping up 10 times a meal to get the raisins, syrup, etc.
Preparation: Have some small pitchers and containers for the components of a meal that the kid can add herself. I will put an ounce of milk into a little cream pitcher so she can prepare her own cereal, for instance. I also use a place mat and keep rags handy for spills.
Caution: I avoid letting mine pour from the regular containers. Just seems like a recipe for mess and wastage to me.
3) Put on and take off clothes, including winter outerwear. Different kids need varying degrees of coaching -- in our house getting those socks on is something that always needs about 10 reminders. And I still have to help with snow pants and start that coat zipper for my little Malto-o-meal kid.
Preparation: Clothing storage should be accessible and predictable. We hung a lower bar in her closet so she can choose her own dress, and I try to keep her clothing in predictable places in the drawers. A la Montessori, we also hung a low coat hook for her, but, yes, she usually needs reminding to use it.
Caution: Fashion choices are almost guaranteed to mortify you. Get used to it. Whether you allow the kid to walk around in shoes on the wrong feet and take the millions of grandmothers out there who will point this out to you, on the other hand, is your call.
4) Use the bathroom.
I know a lot of 3-year-olds are still in diapers or at least calling for a wipe, but I got lucky in this area. My daughter became a competent wiper right away during potty training last year (I'll be sure to brag about her wiping skills to her future dates and high school classmates -- she'll love that!) Remembering to flush still needs work, but I'm happy to report that the volume of toilet paper used has decreased from plumbing-threatening to simply wasteful. (No wonder that toilet paper was one of the first things I bought when I began CVSing.)
Preparation: Remove obstacles such as child-safety latches on bathroom door or toilet seat. Leave bathroom door open if necessary and possible. Make sure paper and handwashing supplies are in reach.
Caution: You may want to supervise the washing of those hands, especially after a BM.
5) Self shampoo and wash.
This is the latest development at our house, and it thrills me, especially since our daughter used to vehemently resist being shampooed.
Preparation: I took a kids pump bottle of foaming hand soap and refilled it with children's shampoo. Since my daughter loves pumping the bottle, she agreed right away to try administering her own shampoo. For rinsing, she uses Flo, the great product from Boon that both softens the tub spout against accidental head bumps and sends a soft flow of water up and out into the tub.
It's pretty easy for her to lean her head back just in front of the Flo and let it rinse her. For soaping up her body, we recently bought a Johnson's Buddies Easy-Grip Sudzing Bar (free at CVS after this coupon). My daughter loves it, but we probably won't use this much because she has eczema and needs fragrence-free products. It's just a small bar of soap inside a slightly abrasive cloth, and you could probably easily sew one up using a scrubbing washcloth or even a mesh onion bag.
Caution: Again, make sure that water heater isn't running hot. Since Flo directs the spray of water directly onto your kid, this is very important. Check the water temperature with your hand just before you let your kid use it.
There you have it. I just can't wait until we add doing her own laundry and driving her little sister to swimming lessons, so I can get back to writing that Great American Novel.