Recently, my oldest daughter informed us that she did not want to change her younger brother’s poopy diapers. On the surface, it seemed like a reasonable request. After all, I wanted to avoid changing his diapers too.

Then, it hit me. Was she changing his diapers? Who told her that she needed to?

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised that this was happening and praised her for taking on a grown-up responsibility. Fifteen minutes later, I was reminding to do one of her chores and getting pretty exasperated.

I had fallen into what Michael Phelan refers to add the “Little Adult Assumption” in his book 1, 2, 3 Magic. This is a line of thinking where we throw our developmentally appropriate expectations of our children out the window and treat them like they are grownups. Except, they don’t have all of the cognitive skills that an adult has which means they frequently fall short of our revised expectations.

Moments like my daughter changing her brother’s diaper bring on the “Little Adult Assumptions” because they are acting beyond their years. We want to encourage this behavior without making it the new normal for them. Otherwise, we create tension, disappointment, and stress for parent and child when they revert to acting their age.

The key is to first be very clear about what your appropriate (non-adult) expectations are. Make sure that your child knows what you do want them to be doing to help out in the family. Be consistent on what these are for each child. In our family, we keep a laminated list of daily and weekend responsibilities posted on our refrigerator. We continually refer our kids back to it to help them understand our expectations.

Sometimes you may need to re-direct your child away from an adult responsibility that they have taken on back to one of their age-appropriate jobs and this is ok. Help them understand that it’s great that they want to do the adult responsibility, but that you need their help first with the age-appropriate jobs. You may also get some resistance from older children who see their younger siblings doing less. Make sure to connect increased responsibilities, assigned or unassigned to increasing privileges.

Be sure to praise them when they act like little adults. They are doing things that shouldn’t be expected of them and they need to hear that you value and respect their contribution to the family. Make sure to focus on effort and not just on task completion as some of these jobs may be a stretch for them. Consider providing them with temporary extra privileges (always make sure that you are comfortable with what you are offering) such as a food treat, screen time, or access to a preferred activity (or maybe special time with you).

Pay attention to how they are feeling and responding to the task they are taking on. These new tasks that they assume can weigh heavily on them. Help them understand that it is also ok when they don’t do them.

At the same time, you need to make sure that you are giving positive reinforcement for when they get done the things that they are supposed to be doing. Verbal praise is great here or even a simple thank you. Both go a long way towards getting children to complete the age appropriate expectations that you have of them.

Setting expectations for helping out in the house and getting their responsibilities done is an important part of your role as a parent. Keep your expectations in check though so that they don’t exceed what your children are capable of doing. Remind yourself that you have kids occasionally acting as adults, not adults living in your house. After all, we want them to keep trying out these more adult responsibilities. It’s called growing up.

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