Training Your Inner Toddler

What has undeveloped motor skills, a short memory, limited vocabulary, poor organizational skills, is unable to understand delayed gratification, and has a short attention span, but really wants to help out at home? That’s right: toddlers! Today we’re going to talk about the specific and practical steps to teaching a toddler how to master a job. If you’re the parent of a toddler or a child with special needs, you’re going to love this.

But hold on!

What if you’re not the parent of a toddler? This blog is still for you. You see, anybody who faces a new and overwhelming task will find they have a lot in common with toddlers. Be sure to keep reading, because the key to success is very much the same. It just happens a lot faster. Plus, we’ll talk about why it’s so critical to be needed.

Here are the seven things you have to know about toddlers when teaching them. Toddlers have:

  1. Undeveloped motor skills
  2. A short memory
  3. Limited vocabulary
  4. Poor organizational skills
  5. Inability to understand delayed gratification
  6. A short attention span
  7. Strong desire to help out

Understanding these seven things will really help make training toddlers easier. But, it also applies to kids with learning disabilities or mental handicaps, kids with autism or ADHD, or even kids who have trouble learning a new skill or ability.

Pro Tips

Before you begin, though, here are a few ideas to make training go smoothly:

  1. Immediate rewards carry the most power and are understood by even the very youngest of children. By the time your children are older they should begin to grasp the concept of delayed gratification.

    Children older than five will usually understand that their reward comes at the end of the week on payday, and that will be enough to motivate them to do their chores all week long. They should begin to understand the concept of saving money for playing on a sports team and so forth. By the time your kids are teens, they should be are capable of understanding the concept of saving up money for distant goals like a car or college expenses.

    In contrast, toddlers rarely are able to stay focused for long periods and have trouble connecting delayed rewards with previous actions. So, for toddlers we instead need to start off new work habits by using powerful immediate rewards.

  2. Also, when working with toddlers you have to change your mental mindset. Don’t think of it as a chore or you will start feeling impatient and frustrated. Think of it as an activity you are doing with your toddler. Why? It will take several months before you see satisfying results.

    If you treat it like an activity where you are spending time with and giving attention to your child, they will actually be excited when you say it is job time (or you can call it “treat time”) and the learning will go much faster in the long run.

  3. Keep the same routine. Don’t change the order of the job you give your toddler. Toddlers tend to get confused easily. If the first thing you do when cleaning the room is to put the couch cushions back on the couch, then do that same thing first every time. If you need to, write down the order so you don’t forget. It will make teaching your toddler a lot easier.
  4. Don’t try to train toddlers if your older kids don’t know their jobs. Get the older kids settled with their responsibilities before turning your attention to your toddlers. Toddlers require all your focus. You can’t be distracted trying to train older kids on their jobs.
  5. Toddlers typically keep the same job for two years. They get the pickup job for the living room, and that will be their job for the next two years.

Now, with that in mind, it’s time to get busy training your toddler.

#1: Undeveloped Motor Skills

When working with toddlers, the first thing to consider is that they don’t have refined motor skills. They can’t do complex tasks like washing the dishes or wiping the table. Even sweeping the floor and using that pesky dustpan doesn’t work for them.

So, the best job for them is to do something simple: living room pickup. This job is the one we give our toddlers for when they first start working. It includes picking up all the items that don’t belong, putting them into a big pile, and then delivering them to where they go. We talked about how to do this for any room in our blog “How To Declutter Your House”. It’s really effective and works particularly well with toddlers.

This concept applies to kids with physical handicaps, mental handicaps, or even kids who are just starting out on a new job. Perhaps they are not familiar with how a mop works. Or how to use the lawnmower. Or how to handle the broom without banging into things with the handle. These all take time to understand. The key is to be patient.

#2: Short Memory

When it comes to toddlers, you have to repeat the same instructions over and over. You have to demonstrate over and over. It just takes a while for it to sink in. This is why it is so critical that you repeat the job steps in the same order each time. For the pickup job, it helps to come up with a routine. Write it down. You can even make a quick chore training video to help. Then, before “treat time” every day, show them the video.

Toddlers are particularly visual. They are great observers. Show them how to do the job. I will usually take them by the hand and pick up the toys with them. That tactile experience helps with understanding.

My wife is really good at training toddlers. Part of the reason is because she’s helped raise 13 kids. The other part is that she was the singing teacher at church for seven years. She taught the toddlers, ages 18 months to 3 years old. She noticed that it takes between 10 and 15 times of repeating a song and the hand motions before the kids start to join in. Her magic number was 13. Once the kids have heard the song and seen the hand motions that go along with it, they would start to sing and move their hands as well.

When it comes to their job, after the toddler has started to show the ability to do the tasks, my wife will then start to quiz the toddler. She will ask them, “What are we going to do first?” If they start to put the couch cushions away, she’ll say, “Yes!” But if they do something out of order, she’ll correct them. “No, not that. What do we do first?” Once the cushions are done, she’ll ask, “What do we do next?”

Repetition is key with toddlers. Be patient. Remember, they really want to help out. They see everyone else working and doing job time, and they want to help. Cultivate that desire.

#3: Limited Vocabulary

Toddlers don’t know a lot of words. You can’t tell them to put the rag in the laundry room sink. They don’t know what “rag” means, and they don’t know what is a “laundry room sink”. So, show them and repeat the words. Again, my wife is really good at this. She will say, “Let’s put this rag in the laundry room sink.” She will then hand the toddler the rag and on the way to the sink repeat the words over and over.

“We are taking your rag to the sink.”
“Here we are at the sink.”
“Put your rag into the sink.”
“Good job! You put your rag in the sink.”

In just one trip to the laundry room sink, the toddler has heard the new terms multiple times. They are starting to understand what a rag is and what the sink is, and also what it means to put the rag in the sink. Within a few weeks (or sometimes even a few days), the toddler will be able to do that task all by themselves.

The nice thing about the pickup job for toddlers is they start to expand their vocabulary. They learn the names of things in the home. And by putting things away, they learn where things go. They start to understand the concept of organization. It’s the perfect job for a little helper.

#4: Poor Organizational Skills

Ask your toddler to organize your garage, and you’ll be disappointed. Tell them to organize their room, and you will not be pleased. They simply don’t quite understand how to put things in order. So, don’t give toddlers jobs that require organizing. Stick to the pickup job. Have them focus on where things go.

Then, by about age four or five, you can get them started on organizing. Have them help with sorting the laundry into darks, whites, and colors. Hold up a piece of clothing and ask, “Where does this go? Does this belong in the dark pile or the light pile?” Get them thinking about the task at hand and what they need to do.

Again, be sure to keep the steps of the job consistent. For example, first get all the laundry basket from the bedroom. Then put it into the living room. Then make a big pile. Then separate into white and darks. Do the same routine each time. It really helps toddlers and young children to have consistency and repetition. Reiterate the steps over and over again, asking your toddler what next steps are and where things go.

It’s a great life lesson. When they are older and faced with similar tasks (maybe a new job), this technique will come back to them. They’ll ask themselves, “Where does this go?” Or, “What step comes next?” And they’ll be able to figure it out on their own.

#5: Delayed Gratification

So how do you reward and motivate toddlers? True, they want to help out, but they will get distracted easily. How do you get them to stay focused until the job is done?

Let’s go back to the pickup job. My wife has this down to a science. This is what she does:

When teaching a two- or three-year-old to do a simple pickup chore for the first time, you should have a small treat in hand. Something like popcorn, Tic Tacs, Cheezits, or Jelly Bellies. These treats should be used for chore time and good behavior at the store and nothing else. Otherwise, your child won’t be willing to work for them. Remember supply and demand applies to toddlers, too.

The First Few Months

During the first few months of toddler chore training, they will get a small treat (like one Tic Tac) every time they pick something up and put it in the collection bag. Keep in mind to only give one small treat at a time. If you give them a big handful they will get “over-supplied” and won’t be willing to work for more. Use this same idea when they go to put things away. Give them a small treat when they are done.

Once they have picked up all the items, it’s time to put them where they go. This is a good language exercise. Remember to repeat the names of things and locations as you work with your toddler.

A fun thing you may want to try is to use a countdown and make a game out of it. My wife will tell the toddler to run and put something away before she counts to ten. The toddler thinks it’s fun and runs around putting things away quickly. Plus, it’s good exercise for them.

After a few months, your toddler will start to understand the concept of picking up all the items in a room and putting things away. Yes, it will take months. Remember, you need to make it a time for developing a relationship or you will find yourself getting impatient. So, after the first month, that is when you start backing off the frequency of rewards a little. You introduce the concept of delayed gratification. You begin to only give your toddler a treat after they pick up several items. Or after they put away several items.

Then, a couple of months after that, you introduce more delayed gratification by only giving them one single little treat after they have picked everything up in an entire room or area. By the time they turn four, they should be able to do the entire pick up job before needing a treat. That is how you train two- and three-year-old toddlers to do their job using immediate rewards.

Transitioning Out Of Toddler Stage

Then there are four- and five-year-olds. They are much more advanced that two- and three-year-olds. They have developed better motor skills and language skills. They can take directions and eventually start working independently. The goal with five-year-olds is to teach them to work independently and quickly.

When toddlers graduate and start moving out of the toddler stage, we recommend giving them the job of clearing and wiping the table and sweeping (or vacuuming) the dining room floor. Compared to the pickup job in the living room, it’s a little more daunting but not too difficult.

To train them on their new job, start off by breaking up their new job into smaller steps. If you have a chore training video, use it as a guide. Offer your four-year-old one little treat (such as a single M&M or Skittle) for every step they finish.

Example: Clearing And Wiping Table

For example, let’s say there are five steps to complete the job of clearing and wiping the table. They are:

  1. Clear all dishes
  2. Wipe table
  3. Wipe benches, chairs, and high chair
  4. Clear and sweep floor
  5. Put cleaning supplies away

You are going to reward them every step of the way. So, once all the dishes are cleared from the table, they get a treat. Once the table is wiped, they get another treat. Once the chairs and benches are wiped, they get another treat. And another treat once the floor is cleared and swept. And a fifth treat for putting their cleaning supplies away. Perhaps even a bonus treat for completing the job all the way (for the first couple of months). You or a mentor sibling will be working alongside them to make sure they do the job right.

You will only need to do this for a maximum of three months before your four- or five-year-old becomes comfortable and confident with the process of their new job. Then you can start letting them work independently. Offer them one M&M if they can do each step without your help. It helps to ask them questions. Ask what the next step is. See if they can remember all by themselves. Soon they’ll be able to do individual steps all by themselves. Each time they can do a step (like clearing the dishes) independently, give them an M&M.

Independence Training

After another month, you can then take the difficulty level up a notch. You’re going to expect your four-year-old son Johnny to do the entire job all by himself without any help. One way to do this is to set aside five M&Ms. Tell Johnny the M&Ms are all for him if he can complete all the steps of his entire job all by himself. If he does the job independently, he gets all five M&Ms.

Don’t worry about how long it takes at this point. We just want him to learn to do the job all by himself. If he’s able to get the job done independently, give him the five M&Ms and lots of praise. He did a great job! All by himself!

Speed Training

The next stage in training is to see how quickly little Johnny can complete the entire job (and do it without any help). Make it a game. Get him excited to compete. Set five M&Ms (or another small treat) on a nearby shelf or counter where he can see them but not reach them. You don’t want him to sneak them.

Tell him that they are all his if he can finish his entire job in 20 minutes. Set a timer. If he finishes in 20 minutes, that’s great! Give him the five M&Ms.

If he doesn’t finish in 20 minutes, make a new deal. Simply take one M&M away so he now has only four. We recommend you eat the M&M yourself. That’s part of the game. Set another five-minute timer with the explanation that if he can get the rest of his job done before this new five-minute timer beeps, he’ll get all four M&Ms. If he gets it done, give him the four M&Ms. If not, repeat the process.

Take away one M&M, eat it (or put it back into the bag), and reset the timer. If little Johnny finishes this time, he gets three M&Ms. If not, repeat the process. Take away and eat another M&M and reset the timer. Keep doing this until your four-year-old completes the job or runs out of M&Ms. Hopefully he’ll finish before all the candies are gone. If not, take the job away and either do it yourself or give it to a sibling. Tell your child they can try again next time. Let them know they didn’t win the game today, but they can try again tomorrow.

This is very effective at teaching a four-year-old to work. Not only is he learning delayed gratification, but this is a fun game that helps him get his job done quickly. Kids love racing for a prize.

Crying And Whining

Now if little Johnny starts crying during the game, do not fold and give him the reward anyway. After all, he did not accomplish the task you had required. This is a major mistake many parents make without realizing the consequences. That action will actually train your children to cry and whine any time there is a reward on the line and they do not want to do the job required. You don’t want to reward that behavior.

If your kid cries or whines, you can encourage them to with a positive word or a hug and a drink of water. You can remind them that if they want the treat, you expect them to work for it. However, if the crying continues, we recommend you kindly but firmly excuse them to sit on the back porch or bedroom until the tantrum is over. Your house is a no whining house. Explain to your child, “If you choose to throw a tantrum or mope, you must do it away from me. Torturing your mother (or father) is not allowed.”

Alternatively, you can simply tell your whining child, “If you keep crying, I’ll give your job away. It’s okay. You don’t have to do your job. I’ll give your treat to someone else.” Let little Johnny decide if crying is worth losing his treat.

Allowing your child to cry because they want something is manipulative and is not appropriate behavior. They should learn to work for what they get. Never reward manipulative crying or you will literally teach your kids to drive you crazy.

Immediate Rewards

And that’s how you set up immediate rewards for young children. You steadily improve their ability to work quickly and independently. In the beginning, you reward for completing the individual steps of the job with assistance. Then you move to rewarding for completing each step of the job independently. Then you make things more challenging and only give a reward for completing ALL of the steps of the job independently. And finally, you focus on rewarding for how quickly they can complete the entire job independently and in a timely manner.

Ultimately, as your kids get older, the goal is to reward them for consistency and never missing their job during the week, but this consistency normally won’t happen until the kids are about age six. Children younger than five can’t quite fully grasp the concept of consistency rewards and bonuses because those rewards only come at the end of the week and are not rewarded immediately. Toddlers and very young children need an immediate reward to stay motivated.

#6: Short Attention Span

What if your toddler keeps getting distracted, even after offering rewards? It is almost always because there is something more interesting than the reward you are offering. The easiest solution is to get rid of the distraction. Turn off the TV. Dismiss other siblings. And put toys away. (If you are doing the pickup job, the toys themselves may be a distraction. In that case, put those away first, and give immediate rewards for doing so.)

Interestingly, this same principle holds true for adults as well. Successful people are known for eliminating distractions when they are working. The famous author Dan Brown (author of DaVinci Code) sequesters himself in a room with no TV and no internet. That way he won’t get distracted when he’s writing. If he doesn’t get rid of the internet, he’ll go to look something up and suddenly realize he’s wasted four hours of him time browsing the internet. He knows to keep distractions to a minimum.

Toddlers typically cannot do any task or activity for more than about 20 minutes. Make it your goal to get the job done in 20 minutes or less. For example, if the pickup job drags on and on, you will get decreased energy and diminished returns from your toddlers and young children. If your toddler can’t get the job done in 20 minutes, no worries. Try again tomorrow.

#7: Desire To Contribute

Every member of the family needs to be needed. Toddlers are no different. In fact, they want to help more than anything. A healthy toddler will busy themselves doing what they see other family members do. If other family members are cleaning up, the toddler will, too. This is partially why we recommend training your older children to do their jobs first, before trying to train your toddler. That way the older siblings are setting a good example for the younger kids. The toddler will naturally follow suit when you start training them.

But on a larger note, there is a deep-seated need for everyone to be needed. This is one of the main reasons we suggest giving family members of all ages specific stewardships in the home. The home cannot run properly without the help of everyone. Everyone is in fact needed. If they don’t contribute and don’t care for their stewardship, then the family suffers.

Toddlers are unique in that they need to be needed, but they also really want to contribute. They want to help out. In our family, we have a two-year-old who wants nothing more than to run the vacuum. He has commandeered that job for himself. He saw his siblings using the vacuum, decided that was going to be his job, and that was that. He won’t let anybody else use the vacuum because that is his job.

Delayed Training?

Most toddlers are exactly the same. They want to help out. They want to be needed. Some people criticize the Moneypants system, suggesting that it takes advantage of young kids by having them work. We couldn’t disagree more. Kids want to help. They want to be involved. Why not cultivate that when they are young? And why would you withhold the intense satisfaction from your children of learning to do a job well? Why would you not allow them to develop their communication skills, their organization skills, learn deferred gratification, and play an essential role in the family?

On the flipside, what happens if you don’t cultivate that desire to work and to help out? That desire quickly disappears as kids get older. What if you wait until your kids are teenagers? Introducing responsibilities and work ethic when kids are older does not go well. Many parents have learned this lesson the hard way. They ask their teenagers to help, and their teens fight back and refuse. It’s not pretty, and it’s hard to overcome.


As your kids get older, the goal is to train them to master their jobs. Mastery means three things: to do a job well, to do it fast, and to do it consistently. With toddlers, it’s slightly different. The end goal is to get them to do it well, fast, and independently. Consistency will only come with time.

There are a lot of benefits to training a toddler to work. You can help them cultivate a love of work. You can help them feel the joy of contributing. It’s a lot easier to teach these things when kids are young. You can help avoid the “I can’t do it” mentality. This is a learned response. It comes from parents, teachers, and leaders repeatedly telling kids they can’t do it. It does not come naturally. Kids only learn that they “can’t do it” when they are told it enough. Avoid that with your kids. Give them a “can do” attitude. Give them responsibilities and then hold them accountable for them.

Very Capable Kids

Years ago, when my daughter Ruby was about 5 years old, she had some friends over. At one point, Ruby asked if she could make popcorn for her friends. My wife said yes, and off Ruby went. She got out the popcorn maker, measured out the popcorn, and popped a bowl full. She melted some butter, carefully drizzled it over the popcorn and added salt. She did a great job.

The visiting friend (who was also five years old) called his mother over and got very upset. He pointed to Ruby making the popcorn and exclaimed, “Mom! I want to do that! Why can’t I make popcorn?!” He had been told he wasn’t old enough or capable, and that he couldn’t make popcorn all by himself. But after watching his friend of the exact same age do it, he knew that wasn’t true. He wanted that freedom and confidence that Ruby had.

Turns out, his experience is quite common. Our society has a tendency to underestimate the abilities of our kids. Interestingly, parents first starting out Moneypants always have the same response: I didn’t realize how capable my kids are. Recognizing that ability and allowing kids to develop their capabilities brings a high level of satisfaction. The parents love it, and so do the kids (even if they don’t admit it at first).

The nice thing is, these principles apply not only to toddlers. They can be used for older kids, teens, kids with special needs or ADHD, and even adults. Having a can-do attitude and an increased desire to learn is helpful for anyone. Just ask a toddler. They know.


What about you? Do you let your toddlers help out? How to you teach them to work? What ideas did we miss? Leave a comment below.

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Phontaine Judd

Phontaine Judd

Phontaine is co-creator of Moneypants and the proud father of 8 sons and 7 daughters.

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