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Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings, 

Chores for All Ages

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

Why Chores?

There are many reasons to give kids chores (To see a comprehensive list, go HEREKids like to feel needed and capable.  Chores help with both.  When parents set up chores as “In our family we help each other,” kids see their work as being an important part of being a member of the family.  Plus, kids like knowing they are able to do things on their own.  They like being able to know that they were the one who made the living room sparkle or who saw to it that every family member had a sandwich ready to take in his lunch.  When all the family members are contributing, it frees up time for family fun, and parents are less stressed.  Parents have to get themselves ready for work.  If the kids are making lunch for everyone while Mom and Dad are getting breakfast on the table, families end up having a few minutes to sit down and start the day together.  

What are appropriate chores for toddlers? 

With support and supervision, there is a long list of what toddlers can do:  They can  put their dirty clothes in the hamper (they can even learn to sort lights and darks if you have two hampers); they can match socks and smooth and fold washcloths, dishtowels and hand towels; they can put their books and toys away if the bins and shelves are low enough; they can “make” their beds if they are out of their crib and they only have a quilt (no top sheet) to pull up and smooth out.  In the kitchen, they can stand on a stool and wash and rinse cutlery and anything plastic in a bin of soapy water and transfer it to a clean bin of water; they can wash vegetables and fruits in soapy water and put them in a bin of clean water; they can dry cutlery and anything plastic. They can also be handed things to throw away or put in the recycling bin; they can fetch diapers, wipes, bibs, etc. from Baby’s diaper bag, and they can carry cereal or cracker boxes in from the car; Outside they can water plants and dig in the garden. They can sponge up spills and with their own toddler size broom can sweep things up.  

To a toddler, there is no difference between fun and education.  Their developmental job is to learn about the world and to explore their influence on it.  Whether they are playing in the sandbox or mixing the biscuits with their hands, it is all “real” to them.  As long as parents are sensitive to their attention spans and don’t get angry when things go “wrong,” they will be as happy sorting laundry as they are sorting colored blocks.  

What are appropriate chores for Pre-K kids?

As toddlers develop into preschoolers, they will become increasingly competent at the chores you have been training them on and will be able to take some of those chores on as their “own.”  Additionally, they will be able to set and clear placemats, napkins, cutlery and anything that is plastic.  You can teach them to take their dishes directly to the dishwasher after they have scraped extra food and put them in a dish washer.  With practice with smaller vessels, they can pour their own juice and add milk to their cereal.  Put the cereal container in a low cupboard so they can get it and dish out cereal to every one if you have transferred the cereal to a wide brimmed container.  

With support and supervision, they can learn to measure and add and mix things.  If you make the same recipe over and over, even if they are not able to read, you can write it out and draw pictures, and they will be able to make simple recipes.  (Recipes with eggs take extra training—both in cracking and in washing hands carefully and not eating raw egg no matter how good the batter tastes.)  They can use a vegetable peeler and with close supervision, they can begin to use a knife (start with cutting soft things), they can learn to spread things on bread (again, start with soft butter and mayonnaise and move on to cream cheese and peanut butter). Get kid-sized oven mitts so they can begin to get experience with things like stirring the onions as they sauté or even flipping pancakes (by standing behind them with your arms under their arms, you can assure that they do not inadvertently bring their arms down on a hot pan).  

Young kids want to spend time with their parents, they want to be in the middle of things, they want to feel included.  As long as parents can slow down enough to put the emphasis on teaching and guiding and not just getting things done efficiently, kids will think learning all these new life skills are great fun.  If parents are too rushed during the week, they can set aside time on the weekend to train new skills.  As skills are mastered (say loading the non-breakable items into the dish washer), kids can start doing them during the week.  

What are appropriate chores for school-aged children? 

By lower elementary, kids should be capable of doing a whole host of things on their own, including getting up, washed up and dressed on their own.  They should be able to get their own simple breakfast—cereal or toast—or should be helping with the family breakfast.  For the most part, they should be making their own lunches—perhaps getting help with things like heating soup and pouring it into a thermos.  They may now be physically big enough to take out the garbage and the recycling, to help rake leaves and shovel snow, to carry lots of things in from the car.  

The most important new chore or responsibility for lower elementary kids is for them to learn to manage their own materials—their binders, backpacks, water bottles, and sports equipment, for example.  They need to start developing and using systems for remembering things like their library books and permission slips.  Most importantly, they need to become increasingly independent about doing their own homework.  Parents would be wise to limit the amount of homework done per grade even if the child doesn’t finish it all and to resist making the child’s homework be perfect.  If the parent feels it is important to correct the work in the moment—especially knowing many teachers don’t actually correct homework—then take the time to do one thing (say a math problem) until it is perfect, but don’t worry about finishing the page.  The surest way to get into homework battles is to have still very young children sit too long doing academics after school; they’ve been doing that all day.  

By this age, kids are less interested in working right along side their parents, so what might have been pure fun to a preschooler might now feel like a chore.  Still, if parents have kept the emphasis on the idea that chores help the family run more smoothly and free up time for fun, there is no reason they have to become a burden.  

What are appropriate chores for pre-adolescents? 

There is very little a pre-adolescent cannot learn to do.  They can learn to cook, they can do laundry, they can scrub the inside of a bathtub and clean a bathroom mirror.  Parents will get much more cooperation with all these things, however, if the whole family is doing them at once.  Or are doing something along side each other.  Perhaps your child is making the salad while you make the spaghetti sauce—or perhaps your child is making the scrambled eggs while you make the toast.  The parent has the power to keep the atmosphere light and loving, to be using the time to connect with their kids and talk about things they like, or to crank up the toons and dance along as they cook or clean.  The more loathsome the chore (toilets!!), the more a plan for fun afterwards helps motivate everyone as in “As soon as the bathrooms are cleaned, we can leave to the beach.”  

Rotate chores so that no one child feels he has the onerous chore while his sibling has it easy.  

At this point, most chores are neither fun nor educational as kids will have pretty much mastered them.  Parents can create fun and build in family activities as rewards, but let’s face it, most adults do not find chores fun or educational.   Hopefully, however, we do find them satisfying to complete.  There is certainly pleasure in an orderly house and a home-cooked meal.  It is reassuring to know that when you need your “presentation” shirt, it will be hanging in the closet clean and neat and ready to go.  Cooking or gardening may become a hobby, but the time at the stove will be more stimulating than the time cleaning up afterward.  

In families where they hire people to clean or cook or do maintenance like cleaning out the gutters, it is especially important that parents show their respect and gratitude to the workers coming into their home.  They should always value the work being done—whether they are doing it themselves or are paying someone to do it.  I have seen too many children not willing to pitch in and help out because, “That’s not my job” or “That’s what the janitor is there for.”  Worse, I have seen children look down their noses at hardworking people assuming that those people have less value in the world than their doctor father or their lawyer mother.  Parents need to teach their children to respect everyone and to know that every person—no matter his job—has his own dreams, hopes, ambitions, skills, and gifts he brings to the world.  Everyone plays his part in this world.  

What are appropriate chores for teens? 

There is pretty much no chore a teenager is not capable of learning.  Chores are not rocket science.  Teens are big enough and capable enough to figure out how to fix pretty much anything—change a fuse or lightbulb, screw a knob back into place, grease a squeaky door, fix a flat on a bike tire.  They will probably even enjoy taking on a bigger project along side you like installing a new sprinkler system or sewing new pillow covers.  If you have built a loving, trusting relationship with them, they will see the added responsibility as a challenge rather than evidence that you hate them and Just Don’t Understand!!

That being said, most teens today are terribly busy just with the academics, athletics and school commitments on their plate.  My hope for parents is that they seriously try to limit how much their teens take on and continue to ask their teens to contribute to the family.  As teens learn to drive, they may be able to take over tasks like the weekly grocery shopping and the monthly run to the warehouse store.  If you keep your receipts in a program like Quicken, your teens can do your data entry.  If you still pay bills by hand, teens can write out checks, bring them to you to be signed and then stamp and address the envelope.  Teens can keep track of shopping lists and the fact that the family is getting low on laundry detergent.  They can do research for a family trip and given a budget can plan activities for when the family gets there.  

Chores are good for kids and good for families.

At the end of the day, families that work together are more closely bonded.  Kids who can show their competence in helping out at home feel less pressure to be perfect at school (and that’s a good thing!).  They may do poorly on a math test but they can make their parents weak-kneed with gratitude because the kitchen got cleaned.  That contributes powerfully to a child’s sense of self efficacy and power in the world.  In families where chores are done, parents don’t fall into the habit of serving their kids (which is detrimental because it gives kids an inflated sense of their importance in the world).  In my experience, kids who do chores are less anxious.  Their total sense of self is not wrapped up in their grades or how many goals they make at the soccer game.  They are more likely to know their value as a human being.  

So what's stopping you? Need some advice on HOW to get your kids to do chores?  You might try my friend Elva Anson's very comprehensive book How to Get Kids to Help at Home:  Help Your Children Become Capable, Responsible, and Independent--And Have Fun Doing It!  Or if you want hands on support, you might consider signing up for my 5-week Harmony at Home ONLINE Group Coaching Class that starts August 10th.