When my son was 4, his school teacher asked me what his chores at home were. Other than putting toys away together, he had no other chore. As my first, I didn’t think he was capable or it was too soon to really give him more responsibilities. His teacher went on to explain how based on her 30 years experience with thousands of children, my son was developmentally capable, and she strongly suggested we add a few. I didn’t really introduce any, perhaps because part of me felt ambivalent and didn’t see the bigger picture. A month later I visited his classroom for his birthday celebration. I saw 20 little ones set the table, wash and dry dishes, sweep the floor, wash the table, clean up their toys, and finally lay down for a nap. And this happened quietly, perfectly, smoothly and joyfully. Wow, was I surprised and impressed!
What really made my mouth drop was how this all took place as the teacher was simply humming a “clean up” song, that the children were familiar with. They were so proud and happy to be contributing to their little community! Some of the children were very protective of their job, and didn’t want anyone to mistakenly take it from them! Their faces shined and spoke a thousand words.
That day was a reality check – I witnessed such an effortless and warm display of “team” and responsibility among 3 1/2 and 4 year olds. I realized that I was taking something away from my child by not giving him the opportunity to contribute to his own family. I wanted him to feel that same confidence and belonging at home, and so I slowly began to introduce age appropriate chores (that were pretty much the same that he took on daily in school).
The Importance of Chores
Chores have been around since the beginning of human time. Children were always responsible for chores in their tribe, on their farm, and even working from a young age in modern cities. And yes, children did work very hard up until a few years back, but on the flip side, children are having less and less responsibility in today’s culture. It seems that the pendulum is swinging on the other end. Bringing it back to center in some sort of healthy balance, is key.
Chores have their purpose. They offer a sense of belonging; a sense of being needed; the opportunity to contribute; develop responsibility; be self sufficient; respect and value property; be part of a team; be organized; and so much more that can truly be useful later in life.
It also creates confidence in kids because they come to know how capable they really are. Perhaps we don’t “need” our children to take on responsibilities for the same reasons that existed many years ago, but they are still necessary in a very different way. The reason for chores may be different in today’s culture, but at the very least we can all agree that we would want our kids to be self sufficient adults when they are finally off on their own.
Where to Begin?
Ask yourself what you believe your child is capable of handling at home. Notice what he enjoys doing. Some children love having a clean room, and having their things in specific places (my son), and others can create a tornado in their room and still find what they’re looking for (my daughter). Pick up on your children’s cues. And start one chore at a time.
Generally speaking though, for 3 year olds, they can put away their toys, bring their plates over to the sink, wipe the dinner table, and they love to help cook a meal. Add to the list as they grow older, and by 5, they can sweep the floor with a hand sweeper, vacuum, put their laundry away, and much more. What is important is that is doesn’t become battle. Bring in a few ideas to make it easy, and as effortless as possible.
The idea of a clean up song worked perfectly at school, but for some reason, it didn’t at home. Many parents I know, said that the song works wonders, and so you can start with singing a clean up song while you are cleaning with your children. Eventually, the song will be associated with clean up, and your child will know what comes with the sound of it. As they get older, a song is no longer needed, because it just becomes the way of home life.
Consistency is key. If a child picks up on the notion that it is not that important if they don’t follow through on their chore, they will quickly learn that it doesn’t really matter, and they can begin to slack. If they do walk away, get distracted or just decide to not finish, simply remind them to come back, and that the chore is almost done. This also reminds them the importance of follow through and commitment in other areas of their life as well.
Rhythm is seen in all areas of life. In nature, traditional celebrations, seasons, and through the day. It can be applied to chores and responsibilities as well. If the chore is done at the same time every single day, it becomes part of the child’s daily rhythm. Rhythm simplifies everything, because a child has the soothing feeling of knowing what is next. There is no question – no wondering. It simply slides from one part of the day, onto the other, and there is no complication. I personally resisted this for a while, but what a gift it truly is! When my children knew what to expect next, there were no more tears, no more arguments, no more nagging. Dinner time means set the table, then clean up, then go up to wash up, brush teeth, etc. They just flow at home, in the same way they do during their school day schedule.
Give them some time to transition from one part of the day onto the other. When play time is over, you can slowly begin to clean up, and sing the song (for the younger ones). They will slowly model your behavior, and may even sing the song too. Sometimes a reminder helps, by asking them to put something away for you. This allows for a smoother transition – instead of just getting up and putting things away in the middle of their mega projects. It may take a few weeks to establish, but with consistency, it will be seamless.
Introduce the Chore
When introducing a new chore, you can either teach it or model it for you child. Once you feel your child got it, you can begin to do the chore together. And eventually, you can have them to do the job alone with you supervising. What is important is that you DO NOT step in and undermine your child. Let them build their confidence and contribute. If a job is not done well the first few times, it is okay. Eventually, when they feel good about their job, you can make a suggestion, or show it to them again. Chances are that you will be asked to show them again, and there’s your window to help them get it right. My 6 yr old daughter still asks me to remind her how to keep her dresser drawer organized by keeping everything folded nicely.
Let them know that you appreciate their help around the house and what it means to you. It always feels good to know that we are making our parents proud, or helping them somehow. It means a lot to our little ones to be noticed and acknowledged for their effort and participation.
If their chores are not perfect, don’t give up, and don’t worry. By the time they are teenagers, they will have it right. If they don’t begin practicing at a young age though, they will have no interest to do much of anything by the time they are teenagers, and by then you will be picking your battles. Chores will be the last item on your list to argue with your teenager about. Before you know it, they will be asking for your help when having to clean their college dorm room (as some require to do).
Start working as a team to honor your home as well as each other’s time and efforts from the time your family is young, and the rewards will be pretty sweet for all family members as the years go by. In the end, this is just another tool and skill you are offering your children for their life journey. When we remain committed to our responsibilities, our agreements and what is expected of us, we become familiar with integrity. Integrity is one of the most important values in life, and what is needed to create a fulfilling life.
Teaching our children about integrity and team work from a young age through chores, is actually one of the biggest gifts we can offer them as their guides. And so chores, don’t take anything away from our children…in fact, they offer very valuable gifts that they can bring into adulthood.
Remember to add the ingredient of fun in all that you do as a family!
Enjoy all the team work,