When our son turned 18 months, he started noticing us doing household chores. He would try to take utensils out of the dishwasher, attempt to push the vacuum cleaner by himself, and wipe down countertops. This makes sense since many play sets and toys mimic household activities and promote pretend play, like cooking, cleaning, and lawn care.
Pretend play is when a child will imitate what they see their adults doing. Does this mean that they are ready to do chores? Aren’t they too young to do this?
Chore Culture and History
A chore is any activity that contributes to the operation of the home and family, and children have been participating in daily domestic functions for centuries. As soon as they were able, they would complete simple jobs, ranging from harvesting food and water, to tidying the house, to taking care of animals and younger siblings.
At the end of the 20th century, an increase in wealth, fewer family farms, and more metropolitan/ suburban living altered the focus from chores to school work. The culture of the “success race”, the idea that a college degree is necessary to achieve a well-paying career, is also another factor for this shift.
Now, parents are less inclined to include daily chores in their child’s life as their schedules are so busy with academic and extracurricular obligations. In addition, some parents believe that their children can learn responsibility through school and structured activities, like making sure homework is done on time or that they have all their sports equipment packed and ready to go before practice.
What are the benefits of doing chores?
- It paves the way for success – Long-term research from the University of Minnesota indicated that children who did chores at a young age grew up to be more successful, both academically and professionally. The best results were seen when children began doing chores at 3-4 years old. However, if kids began household responsibilities in their teen years, the results “backfired.”
- Promotes empathy towards others – Research suggests that childhood chores encourage quality relationships with family and friends as they age. Completing household responsibilities can teach children the importance of having a role and working together as a family unit to achieve a goal. It also gives them understanding on how much effort and time it takes to accomplish tasks.
- Promotes autonomy– A Harvard longitudinal study found that children who were given chores became more independent adults. This is because children feel competent and accomplished when completing household tasks that are meaningful to them, fulfilling an intrinsic desire and drive to become independent.
- Better mental health as adults – That same Harvard study discovered that the willingness and ability to work (doing chores) during childhood was a good indicator of mental health in adulthood compared to other factors such as social class or family dynamics.
- Establishes self–control – Learning household responsibilities as children provides the discipline and restraint necessary for adulthood.
What about allowing them to just be kids?
Some may argue that children should not be concerned with household activities as they feel that “kids should be kids”, concentrating on play and school as their primary occupations. However, part of play is modeling their parents. If they constantly see you making the bed, vacuuming, or raking leaves, they want to do it too. They may pretend to cook and wash dishes or even attempt to take the broom from you as you are sweeping.
It is a natural part of their cognitive development, figuring out their role and expectations in society. In essence, allowing your child to partake in chores, no matter how small, is contributing to their growth and their job of being a kid.
When should children do chores?
Our son began participating in chore work at 18 months, once he became interested in the different chores we did. At this age, he had one responsibility: to help unload the utensils out of the dishwasher. He would pull out the forks and spoons one at a time while I supervised and named what each utensil was.
When he showed more curiosity to other tasks, he would start taking a small part in them. Now at the age of 3, his responsibilities are to feed our pets, bring his plate and cup to the sink, put away his toys, and clean up any messes he makes, like wiping up spills or using a mini vacuum to clean up crumbs. These are small chores, but they get him in the habit of personal responsibility and helping out.
Remember that every child is different. Once they express interest in helping around the house, let them. Keep the task small and simple so they are successful, and always provide supervision.
How do I incorporate chores into my child’s routine?
Immerse your child when they are young and interested so it becomes part of their routine. As they become successful in each task, add another simple, age-appropriate one. With any new activity, show them how to do it, supervise what they are doing, and make corrections when necessary. Also, giving praise once they complete it helps them know that they are doing a good job.
When starting chores with our son, the one thing I had to learn to give up was perfectionism. Sure, it’s faster if I do it, and I most likely won’t have to go back and redo the chore later, but my son was learning. It was something new to him and he was doing the best he can to understand and accomplish the task.
Yes, teaching kids the ropes in household responsibilities can be tedious, requiring time, patience, and understanding. Be patient and give them enough time to figure it out. Once they achieve it, the less supervision and guidance they will need. You’ll have an additional set of helping hands and one very independent little helper.
What if my kids are not so little? What can I do to get them involved?
This may feel tricky as older children have already established their own routine and schedule, but you still can do it. Allow them to be an active participant. Will the jobs be assigned or rotated through the family? When is the best time to do them? Is the workload fair for all siblings? This can range from what chores they will participate in, how they will do them, or when they will do them.
Once that is established, they should take ownership of their tasks and are responsible if those tasks aren’t done. They are part of the family and should help out, even if it’s just chores that pertain to themselves (making their bed, cleaning their room, sorting their own laundry, etc.).
Keeping a chores chart or offering a weekly reward system are also ways to reinforce household responsibilities, but only do these if it’s something that you will also fully incorporate into your schedule. If it’s not effectively followed through, it’s just one more chore for you to keep up with.
What if they don’t want to do it?
Let the whining and groaning begin. Try these strategies:
- Praise the positives, ignore the negatives. If your child throws a fit over chores, ignore the behavior. If you can, leave the chore undone. Once they do complete it, whether willingly or unwillingly, compliment the positive sides to what they did. By focusing on the positives, it encourages the behavior to continue and it shows them that you are on the same team. Keep the tone friendly but firm, not adversarial or condescending.
- Teamwork makes the dream work. Children will take to chores easier if they feel like everyone is working together. An example would be cleaning the living room. Your child can be tidying up their toys while you vacuum. You can also set aside a “family work time”, where everyone is doing a different chore for a quick 10-15 minutes. You can also play music to make it more fun, and to help the time go by faster.
- Explain the reasons for chores. “Because I said so” never works. Tie in consequences when needed and make sure you stick to them. If you need them to clean up their toys, tell them it’s so they know where to find them. If our son doesn’t put away his toy cars after being asked, we explain to him that he may not be ready to take care of them and will put them away for the rest of the day. Never threaten a punishment that you don’t intend to follow-through.
Helping around the house is part of being a growing child. They want to help and they want to learn. Teach them how to do it and make it part of their routine. It will prepare them to be responsible, independent, and empathic adults in the long run.
“What was the role of children on an 18th-century Virginia farm?“, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. HistoryisFun.org.
“Why Are Childhood Chores a Dying Practice?”, Gavin Jenkins. Mel Magazine.
“Should busy, stressed-out kids have to do chores?“, Lisa A. Flam, AP. The Herald News.
“6 Reasons Why You Should Give Your Kids Chores“, Alexia Dellner. Pure Wow, June 29, 2017.
“Involving Children in Household Tasks: Is It Worth It?“, University of Minnesota.
“What to Do when Your Kids Refuse to Do Chores“, Nina Garcia. Sleeping Should Be Easy, Jun 21, 2016.