Chores and Children

November 26, 2013


By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

Teaching kids to help with household chores seems like the perfect primer on work and responsibility — to me, two of the most daunting and most important lessons I hope to teach our children. And research shows that involving children in chores teaches “a sense of responsibility, competence, self-reliance, and self-worth that stays with them throughout their lives.” The same study concluded that young adults in their 20s were most successful when they’d participated in household tasks around ages 3-4. Fascinating!

One of my earliest attempts at working together as a family was cleaning our hallway bathroom with our two boys. I remember standing next to our six-year-old while he cleaned the mirrors above the sink. Only instead of cleaning, he was making silly faces in them. Many, many silly faces. And instead of teaching him responsibility, I was teaching him what happened when I lost my temper. I took deep breaths for as long as I could and then said through clenched teeth, ”Clean the mirror. Just clean the mirror!”

A few months later when I heard a home management coach give a presentation about children and chores, I asked her about my frustration with my son. “Your six-year-old is not ready to be a great worker yet. Stop expecting him to be.” That may be the best parenting advice I’ve ever received. In my resolve to instill that sense of responsibility, I’d ignored the importance of helping him be successful. I’d also micromanaged him, hovering over him until the mirror was clean. And I suddenly saw that instead of teaching him the value of hard work, I was damaging our relationship (not to mention my blood pressure) by expecting him to do things that were beyond his ability.

The home management expert encouraged me to see that my son was still in a very creative stage of life. He’d be ready to work when he was a little older, but until then he could continue to work on the mirrors if that’s what we decided was best, but I would need to lower my expectations and appreciate his efforts more than the outcome. Small, quick jobs would teach him to enjoy contributing to our family and build his self-confidence. That’s what I really wanted for my son. A sparkling bathroom could wait.

Please share! How are you teaching responsibility and handling chores in your family, from little ones to older children? Any tips for making chores fun and rewarding (and keeping parental tempers in check)?

P.S. — Knowing what to expect from kids can be tricky, but keep in mind that, as Elizabeth Pantley, parenting author, points out in this article, “A child who has mastered a complicated computer game can easily run the dishwasher.” See several suggestions for age-appropriate chores here. And more great advice here about what to do when you have to ask a million times, how to avoid scolding (which doesn’t help), the very helpful “Grandma’s rule”, and offering praise for great effort.  

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1 Kristin F. November 26, 2013 at 7:22 am

This post is so timely, because we just drafted a new chore chart last night. My daughter (7) wanted a few things to do around the house that would earn her $10 a week to save towards something she wanted to buy. We let her tell us what things she thought were worth the money (feeding and walking our pets, making her bed daily and vacuuming once a week) and then created a chart. She has the potential to earn $1 a day, plus an additional $3 on the day she chooses to vacuum. Instead of “all or nothing”, we are planning to pay her for the jobs that she does. This gives her some responsibility, but allows a little flexibility in case she just wants to be a carefree little girl one day!


2 Mary November 26, 2013 at 7:51 am

I’ll be interested to read the comments on this one – it seems that families handle chores in a large variety of ways. My boys are 4 and almost 7 – at this point, they put away the dishes, sometimes load the dishwasher, they “make their beds” (basically just straightening out the blanket), and vacuum their rooms. I don’t argue about it – if they’re playing something when I’d like the dishes done, I give some flexibility – but they understand it’s their job. When I’m cleaning, I give them a job to do too, like washing the windows (they can reach) or wiping the sink. My older son also loves to help me cook. I haven’t had to start a “chore chart” or anything like that yet, because at this point they’re willing to help out around the house. If they start to push back, I guess that’s when I’ll have to start being more rigorous about it.


3 Angela November 26, 2013 at 7:54 am

There are no easy answers about chores & children. My best advice is that you (the adult) must be willing to invest untold calm, patient HOURS (if not DAYS, WEEKS, MONTHS, YEARS) to teaching the child to perform the chore adequately. I agree that kids can do most any chore, but I think we all get frustrated assuming they “know” how (and/or how speedily) to do it. They don’t. They must be taught. I think both adult and child ultimately reap huge rewards – but in our manic, hurried, have-it-done-now society, you have to be willing to take a deep breath, set aside a great chunk of time, and be prepared to do it again and again and again.


4 sarah November 26, 2013 at 7:59 am

also timely for us, as i’ve been thinking hard lately about what my kids are capable of, and how i might need to revamp how we structure their contributions. my 15 month old is clearly not yet old enough for regular chores, but he’s been having fun learning about putting his toys away after playing with them (and looking adorable while he does it).

my 3 year old has one simple chore: help out by setting the table before dinner. he loved it at first and now grumbles plenty when it’s time, but i know he’s capable of more. he’s at an age where he REALLY loves helping, so i’m considering having him assist me while doing laundry, letting him practice folding on our kitchen towels, and possibly thinking about teaching him how to make his bed. we’ll see how it all works out. my patience needs a lot of practice, too, so this might be good for all of us :)


5 Melissa November 26, 2013 at 9:10 am

All my kids pitch in! The older ones are teenagers and can do well, anything. But the three year old has a variety of his own cleaning tools, inexpensive tiny tools like a broom, mop, duster, etc. and he just works side by side as I do chores. Sure, the floor is pretty much getting cleaned by me but he’s learning as he goes too. He’s excited about cleaning! He knows how to fold dishcloths, he can wipe down and set the kitchen table, he can carry very light bags in from the grocery. He loves helping and I want to keep that up.

And you know, even the one year old loves to dust with a little cloth and he loves putting small pieces of clothing into the dryer!


6 cath November 26, 2013 at 9:20 am

My kids have to set and clear the table, at home and anywhere else.
They have to clean and tidy their bedrooms once a week, and empty the dishwasher when they can.
I’m always amazed when their friends come over, none of them (except one girl) ever asks to help clear the table, they don’t even flush the toilet and I have to make them wash their hands! Ages between 9 and 11! what’s up with that!?


7 Emily Bennett November 26, 2013 at 9:23 am

Even very small children can have some responsibilities. From the time my kids are old enough to pull out toys to play with, I expect them to ‘help’ me put them away. When they are 3 they can sort their clean clothes into piles (socks, underwear, pjs, day clothes). Each of my kids have a ‘job’ when it’s dinnertime – one gets napkins, one gets silverware, one gets drinks. These are all simple things that help them to be more responsible. Then as they grow it is not a big leap to ask them to grab some wipes and wipe down the bathroom sink, vacuum the living room or their own room, or empty the dishwasher. Everyone helps, around here!


8 Jennifer November 26, 2013 at 10:04 am

I think that letting go of perfection is the biggest thing for me. I let my three-year-old help out in the kitchen – using a pastry scraper, he can chop potatoes and other vegetables for me. The pieces may end up irregularly shaped, but his ownership of the task is important. Same goes for my dish-towels; it’s fine if they aren’t folded perfectly.

I think the other key to getting kids to work is to work WITH them. While they are still learning to do simple tasks, my kids need the task modeled for them over and over again. I can say “pick up your toys” until I’m blue in the face, but the instant I get down on the floor and say “let’s pick up the toys,” or “we’ll do it together,” it is so much easier to get them involved.


9 Emily November 26, 2013 at 11:19 am

I think this is so important and something I definitely want to work on with my future children! I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic and I think that a lot of it comes from being given responsibility at a young age!


10 Laura November 26, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Amy, I think this post (and the conversation that follows) is going to resonate with a lot many people. I’m not a parent, but I hope to have the chance to be one some day. What I can contribute to this conversation is a teacher’s perspective. I used to be a preschool teacher. My classroom was based on Montessori philosophy, which at its core believes that children are more capable then adults usually give them credit for. The kids in my class had a lot of responsibility, but they also had a lot of support. We took the time to teach them how to wash dishes, set a table, sweep the floor, sort socks, etc. starting when they were three. Montessori believe that if you teach the kids how to do something step by step and give them time to play and explore, they are totally capable learning how to help out around the house/classroom. I agree that letting kids contribute in this way helps teach teach to be more self-reliant. It certainly contributes to there feelings of self worth. But you are exactly right, teaching kids these skills involves setting them up to be successful with tasks and tools that are age- and size-appropriate. (A big dose of patience helps, too!) And also, you have to know yourself. If you want (or need) something to be done in a specific way, you have to do it yourself. My husband and I struggle with/re-learn this over and over and over again.


11 Laura November 26, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Another lesson I just learned: edit before you hit submit! Argh!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


12 lisa thomson November 26, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Great info., Amy. I used to start them with their own spaces and as they got older expand into other areas of the home and family life. AS younger teens they complained bitterly but I persevered with my expectations.


13 Regina November 26, 2013 at 9:42 pm

We started teaching our now two-year-old how to pack away her toys when she was very young, usually in the context of helping mommy or daddy clean up. Now she’s pretty good (most of the time) about packing away her stuff once we tell her that it’s pack away time. I’m not a tidy person by nature, but I’ve improved significantly since I’ve had to model that behavior– I think it’s a great bonus that we improve ourselves as we teach our children to be responsible :)

We don’t have a set chore list for her, but she helps out in the kitchen (shaping meatballs or cookies), and when we give her Legos a “bath”. She also likes copying us when we clean. Reading through the comments, I guess I can add sorting laundry to the list!

Another thing I think is important is that we adults have to do our own chores cheerfully so that kids won’t ever get the idea that chores=drudgery.


14 Becky November 27, 2013 at 7:57 am

I’m a nanny and instead of making household chores just an added responsibility in my workload, I’ve always made chores about time spent together. I’ve got to do the laundry, would you like to help by throwing them in the machine and pushing the buttons? Find what turns the little one on in their moment of development. Are they interested in counting, sorting, figuring out the way things work, pushing buttons, fitting things, learning colors or numbers? With bigger kids, chores are a great moment to talk about the day. Most kids love spending time with the adults around them, contributing in a meaningful way. I look at household chores as peace-giving tasks. Reveling in a job well done is part of the fun, too. The little one I do chores with these days isn’t even three yet- and she helps load the dishwasher, put her clean dishes away, sets the table, wipes down the table after meals, puts her laundry in the hamper and helps with all other parts of laundry. She picks up her toys and loves watering the plants and feeding the birds. The joy she gets from taking care of the things she loves (food, clothes, playing, and nature) is just contagious. It takes creativity to come up with little ways for her to help with bigger tasks, and sometimes she surprises me with being able to so gently and carefully carry dishes. Sometimes play is preferred instead of chores, and I always give a choice. But play together is preferred over play alone, so often chores are viewed as just that.

I don’t know of this will always be the case. I had siblings who dreaded chores and were very vocal about not wanting to do them, but growing up, I saw them as important contributions to a clean and happy home. Where some people see opportunity for contention, others see opportunity for peace. I think perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. We’re not giving kids chores to pile responsibility onto them, we’re inviting kids to help in ways they can and want to, in order to become closer and feel the joys of their contribution in the family- a place where we all belong.


15 Caitlin Mallery November 29, 2013 at 1:31 pm

My 2-year-old son loves to “help” any way he can. Rinsing dishes as I wash, helping put away clean clothes, picking up toys, they all make him feel that he is important and necessary to Mummy. Though I sometimes loose patience with his slower speed (and desire to splash the dish water) it is a helpful reminder that what he is learning, and the time he spends with me is of far greater value than a spotless, always tidy home. His latest chore is clearing his dishes after a meal. The sense of accomplishment he has afterward is incredible enjoyable to watch!


16 Kelsey Blakley November 30, 2013 at 10:47 pm

This is such an important topic! I recently started a website devoted to the subject of how, when and what to include in a basic life skills curriculum. The site is intended as a resource for parents who want to insure that their kids are ready to leave home when the time comes. I’ve still got a lot of writing to do and appreciate hearing what others think should be included. Thanks for sharing.


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