You’re in the middle of cleaning up the kitchen, you pull out the broom to sweep breakfast up off the floor, and like sharks attracted to blood in the water, the sound of the broom hitting the floor has your toddler running into the kitchen. Honestly, the last thing you want is your toddler helping with chores. You can do it so much faster (and better) without their help.
But fast forward to middle school. For some crazy reason, the sound of the broom no longer calls to them. In fact, the sound of your voice calling to them doesn’t always get a response! But now you want them helping with chores around the house – they just don’t want to do it.
Why is helping with chores important?
Doing chores is a life skill that our kids need.
More than just a task, doing chores can be highly relational. When your kids are helping with chores, they’re engaged in an activity that impacts someone else. Picking up their toys helps with getting ready for Grandma’s visit. Cleaning up the dinner dishes provides the time and space for the family game night. Doing chores together provides opportunity to learn negotiating skills and hone cooperation, things that I want my kids to be able to do well with anyone.
More than that, the countries longest running longitudinal study, the Grant and Glueck Study out of Harvard has found a correlation between helping with chores as a kid and being successful as an adult.
When it feels easier to just “do it myself”, it’s important to remember the long view impact that helping with chores can have on kids.
What can they help with?
It’s important to keep chores age appropriate. Google chores for kids and you will find an endless array of lists of chores broken out by age. As you use these lists, remember that you can scale chores up and down. Don’t expect your three-year old to be able to move furniture around for vacuuming, but expect them to learn to vacuum. As they get older, you can scale this chore to include steps for a more thorough cleaning.
Learning to do Chores
While all these things are true, helpful, and important, there is often a huge disconnect between assigning a chore and the chore being completed. Why? Because too often we do a poor job of teaching how to do chores. We go straight from telling them to do something to expecting them to do it.
Think about when someone gives you an instruction. At some point you needed to be taught how to do it. As adults we don’t notice the process as much because we have greater life experience from which to draw from. We’ve also learned how to ask clarifying questions. So when someone asks us to vacuum the living room, we might need to ask where the vacuum is kept but we don’t need to ask them what a vacuum cleaner is and how to use it – we’ve already been taught that.
5 Steps for Teaching How to do Chores
Teaching our kids how to do the chores we assign them does take a bit of effort, but it isn’t difficult. And the good news is that this process can work for children of all ages.
1. Tell them
You always want to start by telling them what it is you want. This is an important step to laying out expectations. Be specific while remembering their age. Remember that toddler who wants to help sweep? Maybe you tell them they can sweep the middle of the kitchen while you do the edges and under the table. Telling them what you expect keeps you from tripping over each other and let’s your child help in a meaningful way.
Laying out the expectations not only helps our kid know what we want, it helps us not to expect things we didn’t ask them to do. You want your 4-year old to be putting their toys away, so you tell them to put their toys away in the bins on the shelves. This provides the expectation of what they should do, and what they shouldn’t do. So when they pick up their toys but don’t shelve their books on the bookcase, go back to what you told them to do to make sure they met the stated expectations.
2. Show them
This is where you can help them understand exactly what you want.
If you just want toys in bins and don’t care about keeping sets together, then show them that it doesn’t matter. But if you want like items together, show them how to do that. Side note: If you want to keep like items together, it can be helpful to print out pictures of container contents and tape those to the bin so that they know what goes where.
While you’re showing, talk about what you’re doing. “Oh, this is a car, so I’m going to put it in the car bin.” “These are blocks, so they go over here.”
Depending on the age, you may need to do this several days in a row. It might feel like you’re doing it for them, but you’re not. Showing them what to do is foundational to their ability to do the job on their own.
3. Help them
Now trade spots. Have your child take the lead on the pick-up process with you helping them. If they miss or forget something, you can gently remind them. This is your opportunity to make sure that they fully understand what is expected of them.
4. Watch them
After a few days and once you are comfortable that they “get it”, sit back and put your feet up in the same room as your kids. For a few days to watch them handle this chore doling out very little direction and tons of praise and affirmation while you do it. (Just remember to be commenting on their efforts and not their character. Things like “Nice Job!” or “I love how you remembered to look under the couch” and not things like “Good boy” or “You’re so smart”. Why, you ask? Because it encourages kids to focus externally on process and outcome rather than internally on their self-worth.)
5. Empower them
Once they have it down, you can officially make this their responsibility. They now have the skills to be helping with chores so you can do something else. Trust them to do their job, but verify that they are doing it well. This means following through by checking that they did their chore. Depending on the chore and the age, you might find it helpful to have a checklist of pictures or words to help your child remember the steps. In either case, have them let you know when it’s done so that you can not only verify, but positively affirm their job.
When should your kids be helping with chores?
We’ve talked about being observers in our homes to see patterns of how things are done (see 7 Secrets of a Well Organized Home). So far we’ve talked about this with regard to structuring space and storage, but it’s also true of time and schedule. When chores should be done will depend on how your family functions. If mom and dad both work full-time, then the weekends might be when chores are tackled, but if mom is home with the kids, then these chores might fit in best after breakfast or before dinner.
Regardless of how chores are structured into your home life, they are an important part of growing up. Putting the effort into teaching kids to do chores well is giving them a life skill that will carry them far into adulthood.