When it comes to requesting help around the house, Western culture has it backward. We tend to view toddlers and young children as being exempt from chores and pitching in. We often think they’re incapable of really helping.
Yet in many cultures around the world, from foragers in Tanzania to farmers in the Yucatan, moms and dads take the opposite approach: as soon as a child starts to walk, parents begin requesting their help with tiny subtasks. Over time, the child learns what needs to be done around the house.
By the time the child is a preteen, adults no longer need to make many requests because the child already knows what’s required. In fact, asking preteens to help out would almost be disrespectful. It would imply that they hadn’t matured or learned. It would imply that they were childish.
WHAT DISCOURAGES CHILDREN FROM HELPING?
- Unclear expectations. Children need to understand what the chore is and what we expect of them. Be clear about what is considered a job well done: doing the dishes or simply a “good try?”
- Inconsistency. When it comes to chores, any previous effort to establish expectations can get derailed by inconsistency. Think carefully before saying, “I guess you can skip feeding the dog this morning; Ill do it.” And if parents or caregivers dont agree on what is expected of children, when to make exceptions, or arent 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. 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. “Its not fair” can become a mantra of older siblings when expectations for them increase with their growing competence. Try to set clear expectations that are appropriate and fair for each child. Discussing the chore plan as a family can give children an opportunity to voice concerns and help set a plan that works for everyone.
What are the benefits of children learning to do chores at a young age:
Although there is a common misconception that young children cannot participate in domestic chores, some researchers say that there are many benefits to assigning kids chores from as early as age 3. They have found that:
- Kids who do chores are more self-reliant
- Kids assigned chores are more responsible
- Giving kids age-appropriate chores has been associated with social, emotional and academic benefits
- Household tasks help kids develop important skills such as responsibility, self-reliance and accountability
- Assigning kids regular and reasonable chores fosters their autonomy
- Participating in chores helps kids feel needed
For young children (from ages 1 to about 6), the goal is to fan the flames of a child’s enthusiasm to help, not extinguish them. Here’s how to do that:
- SHOW – Just like with babies, make sure that young children have regular and predictable access to everyday chores. Avoid shooing them off to another room or outside to play. Instead, invite them to come over and be close to you while you work, so that they can learn by watching and occasionally pitching in. Many moms will say something like, ‘Come, my child. Help me while I wash the dishes’
- WORK AS A TEAM – A simple and efficient way to make cleaning more fun is to do some of it together. It never hurts a kid’s morale to see a parent getting into the trenches with him. Play his favourite tunes, then turn your Saturday cleaning into a big ol’ dance party. Bonus: You’re there to demonstrate, so the job is more likely to get done right.
- GIVE CHOICE – For kids who like an element of surprise, write chores on ice cream sticks and have each kid pick one. Siblings can swap their picks, but only if both agree. If you want, you can paint the sticks different colors by room or type of task (green = kitchen, or pink = something with a spray bottle) so kids feel they’re making a choice. You can let your child choose their preferred chore within the parameters you set: you can do blocks or clothes — which would you like? Your child can also choose the thing they like to do: shredding mail, watering plants, setting the table — they will get a sense of ownership for their ‘domain’.
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- SET TIME LIMITS – Time limits are a good way to get your child to comply with doing chores. You can say: “All right, the dishes have to be done in 20 minutes.” If she hasn’t done them in 20 minutes, then your child’s bedtime is set earlier. Or she loses some electronics time. This creates a cost associated with her foot-dragging. The beauty of this system is that you’re not constantly nagging anymore. Instead, you’re just keeping time. You can even use a cooking timer with an alarm. The next night, you can say: “Let’s not repeat what happened last night—remember, you didn’t enjoy going to bed earlier.”Another timing strategy parents can use is to motivate your child to compete with herself. You can say: “Let’s see if you can get it done in 15 minutes tonight. But remember, you have to do it right. I’m going to check.”You can even give her an incentive: “If you get it done within 15 minutes, you can stay up 15 minutes later. Or you can stay online 15 minutes more.” Then it becomes more exciting and stimulating for the child. While your child won’t lose anything if she doesn’t get the task done, she will gain something if she does.This kind of reward system is always preferable to one in which the kid loses something because it’s more motivational and less punitive—you’re giving your child an incentive to do better.
- ENCOURAGE – If a child asks to help, let them! If the task is simple, step back and let them have a shot at it. Don’t start instructing; for small children, words are lectures—and confusing ones at that. Watch what the child does and try to build off their effort. If they start to make a big mess or big mistakes, gently guide them back into being productive. For example, in one study with Maya families in Chiapas, a 2-year-old toddler wants to help his grandma shell beans, but he’s clumsy about it. The boy grabs a handful of whole beans and throws them in the trash. So his grandma corrects him and shows him the right way. She takes the beans out of the child’s hand, before he can throw them away, and tells him that whole beans aren’t to be thrown away. When the toddler, ignores her, she repeats the guidance. If a task is too advanced—or too dangerous—for their skill level, relax.
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- INCLUDE ALL FAMILY MEMBERS – Reduce conflict and resistance by making it clear to all 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.
- KEEP IT SMALL AND REALISTIC – Why do adults even want to run away screaming from household tasks? It’s overwhelming. Counteract that ‘everything is a mess and everything needs to be cleaned up with realistic expectations: identify a few small tasks (or, when it comes to kids — even just one task) and get them done. Then you and your kids will have a sense of accomplishment rather than dread when it comes to cleaning.
- MAKE IT PLAY TIME – Turn “kitchen time” into a dance party. Appoint one child to be a chef and another to be a DJ. The chef chooses what she would like to help make for dinner, such as a simple salad or mashed potatoes. The DJ chooses what appropriate dance tunes he’d like to include on a playlist. Everyone can then dance around the kitchen while preparing dinner or while emptying the dishwasher later. Other ways to promote play: Do the laundry while pretending to be robots or characters from a favourite movie, or have a room-to-room singing contest where each child takes turns singing one song (loudly!) from the room he is cleaning up.
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- CREATE A STRUCTURE FOR CHORES – Structure is essential when it comes to completing household tasks. I believe there should be a set time when chores are to be done.Evenings are usually the best time for chores during the school year because doing chores in the morning just adds to the stress and intensity of getting to school on time. In the summer, though, I recommend doing chores in the morning to get them out of the way before the day starts.In general, before the video games or any electronics go on, make it a rule that your child’s bed has to be made, his clothes should be in the hamper, and his room is tidy. This way, he’s starting to learn that his responsibilities have to be met before he can have free time.Again, you never want to be pulling your child back from something exciting in order to do something mundane and boring. Rather, you want to get them to work through the mundane and boring things to get to something exciting.Sometimes as a parent, you have to ask yourself, “if my child isn’t doing his chores, what is he doing?” You really have to be aware of how your child is using his time. If he’s not doing his chores because he’s playing on the computer or reading a comic book, you’ve got to stop that pattern.
- DONT DO CHORES AS PUNISHMENT – Don’t use chores as a punishment or as a consequence. If somebody misbehaves and does something wrong, don’t give them a consequence of doing the dishes, for example. You want your child to learn that a chore is an expected responsibility to be done no matter what.Only use chores as a consequence when your child does something wrong to another sibling. In order to make amends—to right the wrong—they do that person’s chore for them. That’s a physical way of saying, “I was wrong to do that, and I’m doing your chore to show you that I’m sincere.”