"When are my children old enough to help with chores?"
Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation
It's never too early or too late. Kids need to know they are important, useful, contributing members of your family. If they don't find satisfaction in positive ways, often they find not-so-positive ways to feel important.1 Working builds skills, makes them feel useful, and teaches appreciation for the work that needs to be done and for those who do it. It may be tempting for parents to do everything themselves, thinking it is easier and will get done "properly." When parents take that attitude, they deprive their kids of opportunities to learn cooperation and responsibility.
- Get the kids involved in brainstorming a list of jobs that need to be done to help the family.
- Take time for training and work with your children until they learn how to do the job. When they feel ready to do the job alone, let them know you are available if they need help. Step back and don't jump in unless asked. If there are problems, work them out at a family meeting instead of criticizing at the moment.
- Provide kid-sized equipment, such as a small broom, a feather duster, or small gardening tools.
- Create a chore time when everyone works together, rather than handing out lists of chores for kids to do.
- Notice the contribution instead of the quality of work done. If your very young child loses interest halfway through emptying the silverware in the dishwasher, thank her for the half she did instead of insisting she finish every last piece.
- Don't feel sorry for kids and do their jobs for them because they have a lot of homework or play in a sport. Help them organize their time to continue helping the family.
- Make sure the jobs are appropriate for the age as suggested in the following list.
Two- to Three-Year-Olds
- Pick up toys and put in the proper place
- Place napkins, plates, and silverware on the table (perhaps not correctly at first)
- Clear their own place at the table and put the dishes on the counter after cleaning the leftovers off the plate
- Wipe up their own accidents
- Unload utensils from the dishwasher
- Fold washcloths and socks
- Set the table--with good dishes, too
- Follow a schedule for feeding pets
- Help make the beds and vacuum
- Help wash the dishes or fill the dishwasher
- Dust the furniture
- Prepare cold cereal
- Hold the hand mixer to whip potatoes or mix up a cake
- Get the mail
- Help with the meal planning and grocery shopping
- Make their own sandwich or simple breakfast, then clean up
- Pour their own drinks
- Tear up lettuce for the salad
- Make the bed and clean their room
- Scrub the sink, toilet, and bathtub
- Separate clothes (white, color) for washing
- Answer the telephone and begin to dial it
- Take out the garbage
Six- to Eight-Year-Olds
- Shake rugs
- Water plants and flowers
- Peel vegetables
- Cook simple foods (hot dog, boiled egg, toast)
- Prepare their school lunches
- Gather wood for the fireplace
- Take a pet for a walk
- Clean out the inside of the car
Nine- to Ten-Year-Olds
- Change sheets on the bed and put dirty sheets in the hamper
- Operate the washer and dryer, measuring detergent and bleach
- Buy groceries, using a list and doing comparative shopping
- Keep their own appointments (dentist, doctor, school) if within biking distance
- Prepare a family meal
- Do neighborhood chores
- Wash the family car
Ten- to Eleven-Year-Olds
- Earn their own money (baby-sit, do neighborhood yard work)
- Pack their own suitcases
- Be responsible for a pet (caring for a hamster or lizard)
Eleven- to Twelve-Year-Olds
- Run their own errands
- Mow the lawn
- Help a parent build things
- Clean the oven and stove
- Be responsible for a paper route
- Help with family errands
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
- Refrain from nagging and reminding. If a job is forgotten, ask the kids to look at the chore list to check if everything is done.
- If the kids forget to do a chore, use a sense of humor. One mother brought a pot of soup to the table and pretended to ladle the soup into imaginary bowls. The table setter for the evening suddenly realized he had forgotten his job and ran quickly to bring the bowls before the soup hit the table.
- Use mutually agreed-upon nonverbal reminders if a chore is forgotten. Many kids like the signal of an upside-down plate at the table. When the plate is upside down, it reminds the kids that part of the routine needs to be completed before sitting down to eat.
Life Skills Children Can Learn
Children can learn that they are part of the family and people need their help. They're capable and skilled and can be useful, for themselves and others.
- Children aren't born with the competency to do jobs efficiently and quickly. As a matter of fact, it's usually more work to have them help. If, however, you send them out to play so you can zip through the housework, you teach children they're not really needed. Later you may complain that you have to do it all.
- The extra effort it takes to involve and train children to help the family is worth it because they learn skills such as keeping commitments, planning ahead, following through, organizing their time, and juggling several tasks at a time.
Three-year-old Kristin asked if she could help clean the house in preparation for company coming to dinner. Her mom asked if she would like to do the bathroom, and she said yes. Kristin took a can of cleanser and a cloth into the bathroom. When Kristin was finished, she said to her mom, "The bathroom is all cleaned up! I like helping you clean." Her mom got busy and forgot to check Kristin's work.
The guests used the bathroom several times during the evening without comment. After they left, Kristin's mom went into the bathroom. To her shock, she saw that Kristin had used an entire can of cleanser. There was white powder everywhere. Kristin's mom laughed to herself as she thought about what her guests might have been thinking when they took their turn in the bathroom. She realized Kristin needed more time for training in the use of cleanser.
1 For more information on motivating family members of all ages to help with chores, see Lynn Lott and Riki Intner, Chores Without Wars (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998.)
These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.