Some of our first lessons in responsibility can come in the form of childhood chores. If we understand what gets in the way and what may help when it comes to chores, we have a better chance of having children be participating family members who do chores. If they are carried out correctly, chores can be a real benefit to the child as well as the entire household.
What Gets in the Way of Children Helping with Chores:
- Unclear expectations—Children need to understand what the job is and what we expect of them. What is a job well done: finishing setting the table or doing the dishes, or just a “good try”?
- Inconsistency—Any effort to establish expectations can get derailed by inconsistency: “I guess you can skip feeding the dog this morning—I’ll do it.”
- Inconsistency between two parents—If parents don’t agree on what is expected of children or when to make exceptions, or aren’t equally adept at refusing to give in to child procrastination or defiance, children usually figure out how to divide and conquer.
- Time—It takes time to teach children how to do chores and to establish expectations, and busy parents and children can easily use lack of time as a rationale for either adults doing the chore or leaving it undone.
- Siblings—Siblings can become really good at subverting parent expectations. “It’s not fair” can become a mantra of older siblings when expectations for them increase with their growing competence.
What Helps Children Do Chores:
- Give young children easy tasks—two-year-olds can be given responsibilities such as helping take clothes out of the dryer, putting their clothes away, cleaning up after a meal by throwing away the paper napkins or wiping tables or counters, carrying a backpack from the car into child care, or turning off lights at bedtime. Don’t expect great results when children are very young or chores are new—the goal isn’t a clean table when a child has an imperfect understanding of when to squeeze and when to wipe. The point is establishing the helping routine.
- Choose age-appropriate chores—Establish that chores are based on developmental levels—older children should be expected to do more. These chores can include some that take a little longer, require more effort, and are more complicated: setting or clearing off the dinner table, sorting or folding the laundry, washing the dishes, sweeping the kitchen, or taking out the garbage.
- Use tracking systems—Calendars and charts are not only good organizational systems, but can also be used for family language and math activities.
- Remember the child’s context—The worst time to expect chores to be performed is right after school when a child may need some time to relax or blow off steam, or right before bed.
- Make all household members take part—Reduce conflict and resistance by making it clear to all household family members that “everyone has to pitch in.” It is also reasonable to assert that you work hard outside of the home as part of your own effort.
- Recognize a job well done—No one is paid or highly praised for simply living, so why should chores be paid for (as opposed to extra big jobs) or be the subject of effusive praise? However, allowances as a means of sharing the family income for “all the work we do” is a good way to recognize efforts and teach children about money. Moderate appreciation and praise that recognizes the effort and accomplishment reinforces the day-to-day expectation of making a family contribution.
- Involve the child in the decision making process—Listen and give clear choices about tasks. “What chores are you interested in doing?” “Would you prefer to clear the table or put the dishes in the dishwasher?” But remember—you are “your children’s boss” and they might have tasks assigned to them that they may not want to do. Periodically reassign chores.
- Try to have fun—Some chores can be fun for younger children. Laundry can involve games such as sorting, matching, and tossing socks in the basket. Listening to music can add some life to chores—a little song and dance can become a part of some chores.
- Avoid gender stereotypes—There’s no genetic factor in who does laundry and who takes out the garbage. Of course, it helps if we can model this ourselves.
As with all aspects of good parenting, it is much easier to talk or write about turning children into responsible helpers than to actually make it happen…but the effort is worth it.