In theory, giving kids household chores seems like a winning scenario for everyone involved — kids gain responsibility and parents finally get extra help with the dishes, the dog, and the never-ending laundry. But kids aren’t always willing participants in this well-conceived plan. All too often, parents find that getting a child to finish a job proves to be more work than the chore itself — and grudgingly pick up the slack themselves.
That means today’s kids are doing less around the house: According to the University of Maryland Population Research Center, kids’ time spent doing housework dropped 25 percent from 1981 to 2003, and kids aged 6 to 12 now help out for just 24 minutes per day.
Letting kids off the hook may seem like the easy way out, but it’s a mistake, says Judy H. Wright, parent educator and author of 77 Ways to Get Your Kids to Help At Home. Household chores breed confidence, competence, and success. “I’ve had teachers tell me that they can spot the students who do chores at home,” she says. “It gives children confidence when they’re allowed and expected to contribute to the family.”
If you could use more help around the house, read on for ways to get kids to pitch in.
TODDLER/PRESCHOOL (Ages 2-5): Little Helpers
Parents often aren’t sure whether tots can or should do household chores, says child development specialist Uschi Wells of Imprints, a parent education organization in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But household chores can be a developmental boon to young kids. “We try to help parents see how chores can fit in to a child’s healthy development,” she says. “Giving a 2-year-old a task like filling the cat’s water dish or carrying a pile of laundry builds their fine motor and gross motor skills.”
Young children often enjoy helping their parents, making early childhood is an excellent time to start with a few small chores, says Wells. The key to soliciting cooperation from young children is to make it fun, she notes; this isn’t the time to pile on the pressure by assigning too many jobs or nagging. Instead, find jobs a young child enjoys, like dusting baseboards, sorting laundry, or unloading silverware from the dishwasher.
ELEMENTARY YEARS (Ages 6-11): Loving Limits
The late elementary years are a time of social and emotional growth, and children become more concerned with independence than with pleasing their parents — so the sweet child who used to cheerfully sort socks and make her bed may start to shirk the simplest household task. A spurt of physical growth toward the end of elementary school also leaves kids tired by day’s end.
Tweens should still help, but parents may need to find creative ways to get them off the couch. Wright recommends giving jobs with a time limit attached: A child must feed the dog before he eats dinner, for example, or take on bigger jobs like bedroom cleaning on Saturday mornings before the weekend rush begins with a regular one-hour “work party.”
TEEN YEARS (Ages 12-18): Time Crunch
Between 7 a.m. classes, after-school jobs, and burgeoning homework loads, it may seem like teens are too busy for chores. During these years, some parents relax rules about household chores to allow teens to focus on schoolwork. That’s fine, says Wright, but teens still benefit from contributing to the household.
“Chores help teens build skills like planning, time management, and creativity they’ll use in the working world,” she says. Teens who are short on time can flex their growing negotiation prowess, an important skill for workplace success. “A busy teen can trade jobs with her sibling, maybe by telling her younger brother that if he vacuums, she’ll drive him to soccer practice,” says Wright. “It’s good training, no matter what the future holds.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published journalist and mom of three. • maliajacobson.com