When Abigail Buren said “If you want your children to have their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders,” I’m pretty sure she was talking about chores.
Chores make sense. Who among us hasn’t wondered why we’re doing all the work? If kids pitch in, that means parents get a little relief. It’s also practice for when these same kids grow up and face these same responsibilities on their own. Not to mention the character building that comes from working as a team in the meantime.
But in our modern world, doling out chores is somehow murkier than when we were young. It’s hard to figure out what’s appropriate. When will they find the time? And frankly, what’s a system we can stick to without adding more stress to our lives?
I have four small kids, ages three, five, six and eight and after lots of trial and error, these are their current chores:
Chores are good for building character
Why chores? Why not let kids be kids? Because it’s good for their character, and this is how I know. A while ago I started noticing a pattern when I asked something like, “Hey, could someone grab another gallon of milk from the garage fridge?” This is what I’d hear:
Kid 1: “MOMMY! You ALWAYS ask us to do things.”
Kid 2: “WHAT?!? But I’m HUUUUUUNGRY.”
Kid 3: “UGGGGGGGGH.”
Who were these creatures? Why was it so hard for our kids to pitch in? Couldn’t they see that I was already doing something every time I asked them to help?
On the surface it seemed like laziness. But this exasperation, all those sighs, are really about entitlement. “Why should I have to help?” is a lot different from “I don’t want to help.”
That’s what needed to change.
For many reasons.
It’s a fact that when these kids are older, they’re going to have to do all the things themselves. The laundry. The shopping. The cleaning. The working. And in the meantime, there’s no reason why I should wait on six people. To my surprise, this was what really got through to them: the injustice of it all. What’s fair? Now that’s a language kids speak fluently.
Chores are also good for kids, according to The Washington Times (and a quick Google search will show you many others!):
Marty Rossmann of the University of Mississippi used data collected over 25 years, starting in 1967, to discern whether asking children to help with household chores starting at age 3 or 4 was instrumental in predicting the children’s success in their mid-20s. Chores, she determined, instilled in children the importance of contributing to their families and gave them a sense of empathy as adults. Those who had done chores as young children were more likely to be well-adjusted, have better relationships with friends and family and be more successful in their careers.
This! Isn’t this what everyone wants for their kids? With both a successful future and a smoother present in mind here is the chore system that works best for our small kids.
A 3-Part Chore System for Kids
Once I connected with the kids on a level of empathy, by explaining exactly what we wanted them to do and why it wasn’t fair for the adults to do everything, we started experimenting with chores. By now we’ve tried a few different chore systems: rotating weekly with a magnet system, giving allowance, offering $1 on-the-spot jobs but what we settled on because it works really well. And it’s simpler than anything else:
- Everyone has one designated daily job, plus a few basic expectations for general tidiness.
- Occasionally I’ll ask for help and it’s not optional.
- In some cases, there are paid jobs. These are optional.
Daily chores for kids
The key was being clear with the kids about exactly what their jobs are and that they’re part of a team. Working together, we’ll have a nice home that looks good and feels good too.
Now my five-year-old unloads the dishwasher every morning. My husband helps him put the high things away. But it works (most of the time) because he knows this is his job and it’s never a surprise. Our six-year-old feeds the dogs every morning and her eight-year-old sister feeds them at night. At the end of the day, it’s up to our three-year-old to make sure all dog toys are in their basket.
The daily expectations are also straight-forward: Everyone smoothes their beds in the morning, there’s nothing on the bedroom floors before dinner (a great time to do a quick check), I wash and fold the laundry but it’s up to each kid to put everything in their closets. At every meal, every little rascal is required to put his or her dishes into the dishwasher. Not next to the dishwasher. In it. And, the granddaddy of all home clutter: toys are put away when you’re done with them. BEFORE new toys come out. Otherwise my husband confiscates them and into the attic they go.
Don’t get me wrong, the kids don’t do this automatically all the time. We have to remind them. A lot. But again, they’re not surprised by the requests. Nothing’s coming out of left field.
And they get praise for doing the right thing instead of whining. “Awesome job, G!” “Estelle’s got it!” “Violet, I see that you’re doing the right thing!” “Thank you Phoebe. I really appreciate that I can count on you to do a good job.” They grin every single time. We have our bad days but on a good day, it’s less about barking out commands and more about coaching them toward teamwork.
Chores for Kids Under Age 10: Jobs They Can Do Themselves
Here are all the jobs our kids do themselves:
- Clean bathrooms with disinfecting disposable wipes
- Unload dishwasher
- Put away clothes
- Fold towels and kitchen rags (we use a lot of these for dinners and cooking when the kids help)
- Feed dogs
- Open or close the chicken coop door (depending on the time of day)
- Take dogs on walks (everyone except Violet, who is three)
- Set the table
- Put dishes in the dishwasher
- Put away toys
- Smooth their beds
Sometimes I just need a helper. Like grabbing something from the garage fridge. Or folding all the blankets that ended up in a pile on the sofa. I try to ask nicely and really act grateful for the help, the way I would if one of my friends was over and instead of a kindergartener, I just asked a 40-year-old in stretchy jeans to take out the compost. (You’d be surprised by the change in tone, I’m embarrassed to admit.)
Then there are bonus jobs that we pay the kids to do. These are things that are either hard, unusual or done over an extended period of time. These are negotiated up front but optional until the kids say they’re in. Some examples:
- Bring the recycling up from the street. We have a really long and hilly driveway so this is a big project that pays $.50.
- This week my eight-year-old is on recycling. Her job is to keep the small pantry recycling bin from its usual state of overflow, all week long. Without any reminders. This one is a challenge so it pays big bucks: $2.
There’s a huge shift when everyone in the house helps keep it running smoothly. It looks good and it feels good. We still have our days full of sighs and eye rolls. But we have MORE days of peace than we did. Before the kids started to understand their place on our team.
Parenting seems to go like that. You pour your heart into one area, see a little progress, die a little when it backfires then try again. But chores, I see these as a permanent fixture in our home from here on out.