Occasionally people give parents advice to “have your children help with chores around the house.” I think that is very well meaning and very good advice, and also when I hear this I laugh like a maniac. Help? Are you kidding me?
This is what it looks like when we pull up to our house at the end of the day: I am carrying my purse, my computer, my lunchbox, her backpack, her lunchbox, the water bottle she threw into the front seat, one pair of shoes she removed while we were driving, and another pair of shoes she removed yesterday and I didn’t have the free hands to take.
My daughter, aged four with two workable hands, is carrying a rock she found on the playground.
“Hey can you carry your lunchbox?”
“No. I do not have any hands!” She shows me the evidence of this by holding the rock with two hands.
I contemplate the idea of plopping her lunchbox at the bottom of the stairs and saying that if she wants it in the house she should bring it, but then I realize that’s just more work for me. She does agree to open the screen door for me so I’m not forced to free up a couple of fingers, but this can hardly be considered “helping out around the house.”
Chores for Kids
Toddler chores has been on my mind ever since I heard of the concept. At first, I thought the reason to institute some chores would be to actually help me out around the house, as in CARRY YOUR WEIGHT AROUND HERE, KID. But the more I came to terms with the reality that, most likely, she would just say no and busy herself with a rock rather than help out, the more I sought out other ways to think about chores.
I grew up doing chores. There were jobs, it was drudgery, and in exchange I didn’t get yelled at and I earned an allowance. Reflecting on my own childhood experience, I don’t know if I got a lot out of the chores except that I hated cleaning the house and I thought of that $5 a week as my own whether or not I completed the chore. So I got yelled at a lot AND I felt robbed.
How could I set up chore expectations for The Girl so she got more out of it than I did, and so I could use chores to teach her what I really believe about work and about our family? Your kid needs chores because chores are the perfect opportunity to teach your family’s beliefs about work, money, family, and caring for others. Without these messages, your child grows up unprepared for the realities of a life of work, in addition to a skewed version the work it takes to run a home. Preparing your child for the world of work does not mean impersonating a drill sergeant, but putting some thought into your values and messages can align who you are to your expectations for your kids and chores.
Aligning Chores to Your Family Values
What does your family believe about work? How do you want your children to feel about doing chores: do you want them to see it as helping the family, supporting mom, doing a duty, playing a role? Whatever chore system you develop for your family, your values about work, keeping house, and family should shine through.
Start with the Why
There are many legitimate reasons to involve your children in chores around the house. My journey has definitely been to let go of the expectation that chores for very young children can actually be helpful. For our very youngest, chores and helping activities are not all that helpful and require quite a lot of support and repetition from us.
If you’re talking to someone under the age of 5 about chores, it’s about something other than actually helping.
Here are the three big reasons why your child should have chores:
1. Chores Build Beliefs About Work
I know your child is many years away from their first job, but now is the time to really think about how you want them to feel about this adult thing of WORK. Is work, whether in the home or at the job, always just something you have no choice about and you have to do? Is work the payment we give society for freedom on the weekend? Do you do the work first and then play? Is keeping up the house something everyone in the family should be responsible for?
Examine your own beliefs about work and find the messages that you’d like to send to your child.
Each Person Does a Little Work to Make Life Go Well
As an adult, your child will be faced with the reality that there is work to be done to keep a house. For kids of all genders, seeing what work needs to be done so we all can enjoy our home is an important lesson for life. If chores are always drudgery with no reward, we teach that chores are to be avoided (hello, that’s my problem).
The pleasure I get from “clean sheet night” is something I can share with my daughter when we happily get into the sheets we just washed and put on the bed. Far from drudgery, this chore brings us the pleasure of fresh-smelling sheets and knowledge that we’ve done good work to make our home clean and nice to live in. Share with your child the work and the pleasure of keeping the home to instill this value of shared ownership over the house.
Working is Something We Do for Money
The pleasures of work aside, we do live in a capitalist society and, most likely, your child will someday get a job to pay the bills. To prepare your child for a life of work, it might be important to you to instill the exchange of work for money. I don’t do this yet in our house (because my daughter’s understanding of money as well as shopping is very limited) but I have a very dear friend who uses a system to exchange chores for allowance. In her house, each child has a wallet she carries and, when at the ballpark, if they have the money they can get a treat.
This teaches responsibility and prioritization, and allows you as a parent to have conversations about choices. If your child really wants a particular toy, you can talk about how many weeks of chores would be needed to save up for that toy. Concepts of wants vs. needs, saving, and responsibility are all big life lessons that can be taught here. I have another friend who helps his son divvy up the allowance into saving, spending, and charity piles. Their family values generosity and charity, and they’re teaching this with chores and an allowance.
2. Chores Build Beliefs about Family
The truth is, even though they are full-time destroyers of our home, these little people are a huge part of our family. They have a role to play in everything we do, and the role they play in helping around the house can build their beliefs about who we are as a family and how we approach the shared jobs of running our home.
Contribution to the Family
When a very young person is asked to help and thanked for that help (no matter how “helpful” it was), they get a feeling of being of value. Our youngest children often watch as the adults and their older siblings contribute to the family, and not being able to offer much creates a sense that everything is done for them and they have no role to play. Challenge that idea by giving your child a way to contribute to the family in her own way.
Being a part of a family and having something to offer can give your child a sense of worth and usefulness, building her confidence. When children can contribute, they build their independence and responsibility, which I think are key areas of development for children. For more I like to say things like, “Everyone in our family gives back and helps. Thank you for helping us collect the eggs for breakfast for all of us this morning!”
Belonging to the Family
In addition to being able to contribute, chores and helping activities allow your child to feel a sense of belonging in the family. This NY Times opinion piece posits that doing chores increases a child’s sense of connection to their parents, which in turn helps them weather the stresses of life. From setting the table so we all can enjoy a meal to taking out the trash that we all made, contributing highlights a shared sense of belonging. Whenever I remember, I say something like “Thank you for helping our family,” to communicate that helping out isn’t just about making mom’s life easier. It’s helping our family.
People, Animals, and Plants Need Care
Your child may not understand that animals and plants need caring, and that this caring involves work. Find an age-appropriate pet for your child to share in the caring for. A fish is a great pet for a toddler, and with the responsibility of feeding the fish your child will learn that caring for others takes responsibility. This is such an important lesson for all kids because the work of caring for others often goes unnoticed or is considered women’s work, something that women are naturally good at and do because they have a desire to care for others. This is just simply not true– the work of caring for others is WORK and let’s make that really clear to all members of the next generation, shall we?
3. Chores Build a Sustainable Home
If you want a lifetime of nagging kids to do chores, you could do nothing now. But my belief is that you lay a foundation now for how your home will run in the future. Putting in the work with your toddler or pre-schooler now could help you down the road with sustaining the systems that keep the home running.
Instead of nagging about all the things they’ve left around, develop routines that involve them in the running of the house. If you find yourself nagging over all the little things, try downloading this free sheet of 9 Parenting Reminders When You Feel Like Nagging, and set yourself up for parenting success.
Some of the “chores” that your child can do are really just routines. Think of all the ways that you pick up after your child and think about how you could transfer some of that responsibility to them in the form of routines. Putting their shoes in the basket by the closet, hanging their coat on the hook when they walk in the door, keeping a pile of library books in the same exact place all the time so they’re easy to find, putting dirty clothes in the hamper when she takes them off. These are all ways your child can be expected to play a role in the systems of the house.
Foundation for Later Chores
Someday you’re going to want to have your 10 year old wash your car, set the table, unload the dishwasher, or clean their room. Having an expectation of helping at a very young age means your child grows up with the idea that helping is a part of regular life.
An added bonus is that, around 2 or 3 years old, they are DYING to be a helper! Capitalize on that even if it’s counterproductive. Instead of giving them chores only when they’re capable of actually getting the dirt into the dustpan, build those habits now (even if she will just spread all the dirt around and you’ll have to do it later). She’ll be used to playing the important role of helper.
An even bigger bonus? There’s good evidence that chores help ensure long-term success in children. Who doesn’t love long-term success!
In the meantime, think about your family values towards work and home, and reflect on the messages you want your child to get from you about their role in the family. Scroll down to download a free worksheet to clarify your values in advance of choosing some chores.
Click on over to my next post giving you ideas about chores for kids at every age.