I was a weird kid. I sorta liked working. I even volunteered for extra things, like painting the walls and building garden structures. I didn’t always like completing my assigned chores, and (don’t read this, Mom!) I didn’t always complete them well. In fact, I often spent more time and effort getting out of my chores than I did on the actual chore. However, even then I could see the value in them.
During family work projects, like weeding the garden, my sisters would grumble, “When I have kids of my own, I’m never going to give them chores,” and I would secretly think to myself how I hoped to never have to babysit those bratty children. Fortunately, my sisters have wised up; their children do have chores, and I love all of my sweet nieces and nephews.
Is it worth the battle?
It can feel like you are constantly reminding, nagging, or imposing consequences (which are just as big a punishment to you as to your children) just to get your children to complete their chores to your satisfaction. It definitely feels easier to just do the chores yourself. Why put yourself through the agony? Is it really worth the battle?
Beyond the difficulties imposed by the contest of wills, demanding that their children complete chores can leave parents feeling guilty, wondering if they’re doing the right thing for their children, or if they’re damaging them by expecting too much.
When my oldest was little, I honestly felt guilty asking her to help as much as I did. When she was 8-years-old, I had just had my 5th baby via C-section. Right after her birth, my husband had to leave for business in Japan and Europe for a couple of weeks. I still had staples in my stomach and couldn’t stand up straight or carry my baby.
My oldest daughter, Anne, had to be my legs. She had to vacuum, cook and help bathe the other little ones because I couldn’t lean over the tub. She never complained, and she truly seemed to revel in her role as my right arm. Still, though, I worried and felt guilty.
Later that year, at a family reunion, my husband’s aunt, who raised 13 wonderful children, told me she could see maturity beyond my daughter’s years and that I should never feel guilty for requiring her help. Not only was I not damaging our relationship, but I was building it because it was based on mutual, rather than lopsided, dependence and support.
As I have clung to that tenet over the years and required a great deal from my subsequent children, I’ve watched them all develop into thoughtful, capable young adults who can see what needs to be done and do it willingly and without prompting.
Chores are not only worth the battle, they are imperative to your child’s success. Chores help children to develop attributes that cannot be developed by any other means.
Your children will learn necessary attributes as they perform daily chores
Your children will develop selflessness and empathy
Years ago, I read a study conducted by several experts in the field of child development. These scholars compared children who completed “self-care tasks” like making their own beds and cleaning their own rooms, with children who were responsible for “family-care tasks” like tending siblings and cleaning shared family spaces or cooking for the family.
They found, understandably, that work performed for others leads to the development of concern for others, while self-care tasks do not develop the same unselfishness and empathy.
Other studies have also reported a positive link between family-oriented chores and development of other positive attributes, such as the ability to notice distress and respond helpfully.
In one international study, African children who did “predominantly family-care tasks such as fetching wood or water, planting and harvesting” showed a high degree of helpfulness while “children in the Northeast United States, whose primary task in the household was to clean their own room, were the least helpful of all the children in the six cultures that were studied.”
Chores help children learn responsibility and independence
“When young people have been expected to roll up their sleeves and pitch in, and to ask how they can contribute to the household, it leads to a mindset of pitching in in other settings, such as the workplace,” Lythcott-Haims said. Not giving kids chores, she added, “deprives them of the satisfaction of applying their effort to a task and accomplishing it.”
Your children will feel valued and valuable
Children’s confidence will grow along with their skills
A couple of weeks ago I was showing my mom around our newly finished basement. She commented on an unfinished outlet and I, jokingly, handed a screwdriver to my 7-year-old, who had helped me wire up most of the electricity in the basement, and told her to get busy. Without batting an eye, my daughter asked me where the wire was.
I had intentionally left this outlet unfinished because I needed to move the wiring horizontally through a couple of studs, behind already finished drywall, so it wasn’t really a task for a 7-year-old, but I was impressed that she jumped right up, ready to work, never once whining or complaining that she didn’t know how.
My kids have been remodeling and building with me since they could speak in paragraphs, so they know how to do quite a bit. But the single most important thing they know is that they absolutely can do whatever I ask of them. Nothing is too difficult or too complicated. Nothing.
Chores bond families
Mundane, ordinary family work links people. Our daily tasks of sustaining life provide us with endless opportunities to recognize and fill the needs of our family members. Chores that don’t require concentration leave our minds free to focus on each other as we work side by side — talking, singing, and telling stories. Working alongside one another dissolves feelings of hierarchy, making it easier for parents and children to discuss difficult topics or share wisdom.
Related Reading: The Saving Nature of Family Work
My very favorite family memories of growing up (even better than Disneyland!) are canning Saturdays. My dad would bring home (or harvest from our own garden) bushels of peaches or other produce and we would spend entire Saturdays canning them and laughing together.
I’ve carried on the canning tradition in my own family, and I still look forward to those canning Saturdays. My kids do, too, though I still cannot get them to admit that canning is one of their favorite activities, ha, ha.
How do I start?
Give your children age appropriate chores
Kids are so much more capable than we adults think. They can really help with a lot of chores at an early age. The key is to demonstrate the chore over and over, working alongside your child, and to not insist on perfection right away. We tend to hold off too long, worrying that our child may not be ready. But your child will only learn by doing, so get started!
Start your kids out as early as possible. Both the Minnesota study and the Harvard study mentioned earlier suggest starting children as young as age 3 with chores. I’ve found the same thing. My 2-year-olds actually want to grab a broom and help me sweep up after dinner.
Take those opportunities to let kids help. By the time they’re older and really able to do chores competently, they’ve lost interest. Capitalize on the willingness!
Related Reading: Age Appropriate Chores for Kids
Avoid a business mentality at home
Even with the best of intentions, most of us revert to factory-like organization when it comes to family work. We organize meticulously and erroneously believe that children, like employees, won’t work unless they are motivated, supervised, and paid.
This line of thought is a huge mistake.
Don’t pay your kids to work. Tying chores to allowance has actually been shown to be counterproductive. When paid to do housework, kids actually are less motivated to work hard and help out the family.
According to financial writer Grace Weinstein, “Unless you want your children to think of you as an employer and of themselves not as family members but as employees, you should think long and hard about introducing money as a motivational force. Money distorts family feeling and weakens the members’ mutual support.”
Related Reading: Why you should NOT pay your children for doing chores
Some managing, of course, is necessary and helpful. But children need to be taught and mentored alongside a parent, rather than through employee training and use of manuals and operating procedures. Their initial efforts will probably not meet your standards, but as much as you might want to, do not correct your child’s work. If he makes his bed and there are lots of lumps, resist the urge to smooth out the covers. Let your children learn from and correct their own mistakes.
Maximum efficiency and decreased operating costs are not your goals. Your kids are the goals. Training them will be slower than doing the work alone, will probably cost you a whole lot more, and the end results may not be as high quality. But remember that ultimately, the entire goal of having children was to raise them well and enjoy them. It’s a journey, and not a destination.
You don’t need to make work ‘fun’
Who has time to add a song and dance about how much fun chores are to their list of things to do? Not me! There are no cutesy chore charts in my house and no elaborate reward systems to sap my limited energy.
That’s not to say that our work isn’t fun. I just don’t need to go to great lengths myself to make it that way. Kids are naturally playful and you should definitely allow and even encourage spontaneous fun, such as pretending to be maids, wrapping your feet in towels and ice-skating in your kitchen, or making beards out of soap bubbles. Your kids will absolutely find ways to make things fun, (though usually by getting off-task). Allow the fun, even if it takes longer, as much as possible.
But you don’t need to create the fun. Keep it all as simple as possible for the best chance at success!
Work alongside your children and teach them your expectations
Scheduling a consistent time for the family to do chores together makes it a much more enjoyable group activity — everyone pulling together for the greater good. List a time on your daily schedule and call it a time to do ‘our’ chores rather than a time to do ‘your’ chores.
Related Reading: How to Establish a Successful Chore Routine
Be very explicit in your expectations, and write it all down. I’ve created lists for each chore in our rotation, which I laminate and hang in a logical place. For example, there is a ‘Bathroom Checklist’ hung inside a cabinet door in each bathroom, with each aspect of the chore spelled out very clearly. You are welcome to copy and paste my free, printable Cleaning Checklists into a google doc to edit them to suit your own home and chores, or just print and use them as is.
Kids are also more likely to have a good attitude about chores when we demonstrate a good attitude about our own responsibilities.
You read so many stories about grown-up adults who live in their parent’s basements without contributing at all to the household expenses or maintenance. A name has even been coined for this epidemic: Failure to Launch Syndrome. Good grief, people! Why would we want to legitimize this sad state of affairs by slapping a name on it?
I’ve even read about various parents who have had to endure lawsuits from their adult children for ‘unfair evictions’. Here’s an article about a 35-year-old man suing his elderly, widowed mother for PTSD she allegedly caused by evicting him from her basement.
Nobody wants that. No mother aspires to having her children grow up and live in the basement. So we, as parents, have two choices. We can keep treating our children like pampered consumers, the way parenting has trended for the last couple of decades, and produce grown-ups who can’t even take care of themselves, let alone a family. Or we can learn from those devastating mistakes, treat our children like valued, contributing members of a family — by giving them chores — and raise the next generation to be successful adults and parents.
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