by Fred Provenzano, Ph.D., NCSP University of Washington, Seattle
Even though a vast majority of parents in the United States require their children to perform some chores, you might ask, “Why bother?”. It sometimes seems that it takes more time and effort to supervise children through the chore than it would take to do it yourself. However, accomplishment of household chores can play a very important role in your children’s development.
First and most obvious, chores teach children basic skills for living, such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. Second, they help to develop well-trained and efficient helpers over time. Third, they help children to develop basic work attitudes and habits such as reliability, responsibility, thoroughness, and persistence. These skills are generalizable to school and later paid employment, and are the building blocks for success as an adult. Finally, chores give parents the opportunity to express their appreciation for their children’s help in situations that are real and tangible to the children. This forms the basis of self-confidence, and also ties the family together in a bond of mutual support and caring. The importance of parental expectations has been highlighted in a recent national survey of over 270,000 adolescents. Over three-fourths of the survey respondents cited appropriate, clearly stated expectations and standards for accomplishment as key to their success.
Development Children begin with household chores as soon as they have the motor development to do so, usually by the age of three. In fact, children of this age often enjoy helping and imitating their parents in household cleaning duties and tasks. Early chores should involve the mutual cooperation of the parent and child. As the child matures in age and competence, you can reduce your direct involvement. In general, the progression of chores moves from simple to complex, and also from chores that focus on self-care to chores that help the family in general. For example:
Pre-School Focus on immediate self-care and imitation such as dress self, pick-up own toys: (3-5 years) – help clear table, “help”/imitate parents in other tasks
Early Elementary School Establish routines for self-care and expand into tasks for family welfare: (6-8 years) – clear and set table, empty garbage, put away clean clothes, pull weeds, feed pets.
Late Elementary Increase self-management and skill level of chores: simple food preparation: (9-11 years) – wash car, sort laundry, simple yard work, exercise and groom pets.
Secondary School Focus on skills for independent living and self or shared-group responsibility: (12-16 years) cook meals, do laundry, perform repairs to house and car, heavy yard work.
Establishing chores that are appropriate to your child’s age and skill level is important. Start with relatively short and simple tasks, then move to tasks that offer mild challenge. First demonstrate the task: provide some pointers and, as the task is learned, offer more recognition and support rather than direction. Even if their work is barely adequate, they’ll feel more motivation to improve the quality of work the next time, if they feel proud of and appreciated for their effort.
What Can I Do as a Parent?
- Recognize that assigning chores is an essential task of parenting. In doing so, you help your child to learn that they can make an important and useful contribution to the care and support of the people they love.
- Acknowledge your children for their work. Give recognition for both their effort and for their actual contribution. Point out what has been improved by their effort, so that they can begin to develop their own self-appraisal skills.
- Begin by assigning only one or two chores. Choose chores that are relatively simple to do, and that may be of some interest to the child. Often, children show some interest in helping their parents do chores that are beyond their abilities. Even though it may take longer for you to do the task, try to find a way to include the child so that they may begin to develop a sense of contribution.
- Try to find a chore that can be done daily. This helps your child to establish a routine and it easier to remember than a chore that is done only on a weekly basis.
- Don’t expect your children to remember to do chores without prompting. This will only lead to frustration for you, and discouragement for your children. Instead, consider ways to cue them about their chores. This might include notes or post-its left in common areas, or a regular check-in time each day. Some parents and children find it helpful to use a chore-chart, placed in a prominent area such as the refrigerator, bathroom mirror, or child’s bedroom door. List each child’s name, the chores to be completed and space for days of the week. Involve your child in evaluating and checking off the work that they have completed, so that they develop standards for performance as well as a sense of accomplishment.
- If your child wants variety, prepare a list with alternatives they can choose, or a jar from which they can draw a slip of paper with a chore listed.
- Once a chore is assigned, see that it is completed. If you let your children avoid it, the importance of the chore is diminished in their eyes and also your credibility with them is reduced.
- Take whatever time is needed to provide the supervision required to see them through the task. The ir resistance will reduce over time when they see that you are firm in your expectations, and their skill will improve.
- In general, chores should be completed before play is allowed. If they complete their work before play, you will all feel more relaxed and positive. Some children prefer a break fo r play or snack before launching into chores or homework after school. If you agree to this, make explicit plans for when chores will begin.
- Assign chores so that both sons and daughters have equal opportunity to learn a wide array of skills. Both boys and girls need to be familiar with meal preparation, laundry, household repair, auto mechanics, cleaning and other “survival skills”.
Should You Pay for Chores?
Should you pay for chore completion with earning allowance or other rewards? This depends on your beliefs and values. Some parents believe that this pairing prepares children for responsible wage-earning as adults. Other parents think that chores are contributions to family maintenance, not a “job” for pay. Still other parents consider allowance as a means to teach their children money management, and want to keep this separate from chore completion. Any of these approaches can be successful, and there are good reasons to support them all.
Whichever of these ideas you believe in, it is important that you form them clearly in your own mind. Then, explain them clearly to your children in language that is appropriate to their age level. For example, a five year-old may be satisfied with the explanation, “Everybody has a job to help out the family. I appreciate it when you do yours.” An older child can understand a more detailed explanation of how the chore fits into the overall family maintenance, or how their earning their allowance can give them the opportunity to decide how to budget their discretionary money.
If you do give allowance, pay, or other tangible rewards, they should always be combined with verbal recognition and specific, positive acknowledgment of what was accomplished. The relationship between the chore and payment should also be specified, and must be honored. If your child accomplishes the chore, the payment should be made, regardless of any other misbehavior that occurs. If the misbehavior is unrelated to the chore, then set a separate consequence for the misbehavior.
Chores offer an excellent opportunity to teach responsibility, import family values, and strengthen positive bonds with your child. With patience and support, you can foster competence, self-esteem, and a healthy mutual respect with your child.
Barnes, B. (1997). Ready for Responsibility. Zondervan Publishing. In addition to basic ideas about chores, this book includes longer lists of specific shores that are appropriate for different age levels.
Eyre, L. & Eyre, R. (1984). Teaching Children Responsibility. Simon & Schuster. The Eyres offer many creative and down-to-earth ideas for teaching responsibility and also structures them into a twelve-month program that can be adjusted for age level.
Rosemond, J. (1989). John Rosemond’s Six-Point Plan for Raising Healthy Children. Andrews & McMeel. An excellent and very readable guide for instilling responsibility and self-discipline in your children.