When Allison Carter, an organization coach, got tired of doing the endless piles of laundry her family generated, she didn’t hire a housekeeper. Instead, she taught her 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to wash and fold their own clothes. Not only has this lightened Carter’s housework, it has been good for the kids, too. “If you run a full-service household, your kids may never learn how to do practical things like laundry or pick up after themselves,” Carter says.
Indeed, studies show that having children pitch in around the house provides an opportunity to learn responsibility, organization, regard for others, and a general sense of being a capable human being that can serve them well throughout their lives. Still, a recent Wellesley University study found that parents now typically only give their kids trivial jobs, such as putting dishes in the dishwasher. Schoolwork is their main task.
“Although homework and academic curriculums can be much more demanding than in the past, children may not be doing enough to help around the house to develop a sense of competence,” says Markella Rutherford, assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who authored the study.
I often find myself setting the table while my kids do their homework, which just feels, well, wrong. Isn’t that a kid’s job? It sure was when I was growing up. And I had a paper route, too. Of course, chores aren’t something you can expect your kids to want to do. Here are five ways you can help your kids learn to clean up their act and help them learn good life lessons in the process.
1. Stop being a pick-up artist.
A natural place to start with household chores is teaching your kids to pick up after themselves, which likely means resisting the urge to do the tidying. Consider: “Every time you pick up after everyone, you reinforce the behavior and condition them to keep cluttering,” says Josh Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Your family learns that if they leave their stuff around, you’ll bail them out. Instead, teach them to keep the house clean by stating a rule such as “I’d like you to take your dirty dishes into the kitchen before going to bed so we don’t come down to a messy living room in the morning.” If dirty dishes are still there in the morning, let them pile up, even if several days’ worth amasses. Consistency is key. Whatever you do, don’t touch the dishes, no matter how much they bother you. Then, just keep stating the rule, emphasizing that as a family, you all need to do your part to keep the house neat.
2. Focus on the outcome.
Encourage your kids by offering an incentive to clean up. For example, tell them that once they’ve picked up their toys, they can go to the playground. Or once they’ve cleaned the den after their slumber party, then you can all go shopping. It makes them understand that completing chores makes other fun activities possible.
3. Assign tasks based on your child’s age.
It’s never too early to enlist your child’s assistance. Even preschoolers can put napkins on the table, help match the socks, or put toys away. For young children, break down each task into a simple two-or three-step process and do it with them until they are old enough to do it themselves. Even a first-grader isn’t likely to clean the living room solo. Emphasize, “We’re doing this together” without getting angry. Expect kids to do more without your support or reminding them as they mature. Eventually, the process will become a habit and your kids will tidy up automatically.
Rotate chores as much as possible, too, so no one gets stuck with the same job all the time. One idea? Put all the chores that need to be done into a hat. Whatever gets drawn is your child’s job for the week.
4. Don’t be a nag.
If you’re always reminding your kids to do their chores, they’ll learn to depend on you for that cue. Instead, help them remember to do tasks without prodding by referring to a chore chart or evaluating their work. Instead of saying, ‘Pick up the towels,’ ask your child: ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ Another option is to assign your kids their own designated towel. If it ends up on the bathroom floor again, so be it. That’s what they get to use next time, which is a logical consequence for not hanging the towel up.
5. Pile on the praise.
But make your accolades authentic. Recognize their contribution and honestly express gratitude, that will build their competence and confidence.