When I read the statistic from a University of Maryland study that children between the ages of six and twelve spend only 24 minutes a day doing housework, a 25 per cent decline from 1981, my first thought was, "Where the heck are these kids finding 24 minutes?!"
Blame the back-to-back extracurricular activities, the after-school tutoring sessions, the need by parents for things to be perfect the first time (because who has time to do them over?), or the convenience of outsourcing help, but the fact is that today's children spend significantly less time doing chores than did previous generations. And apparently, it matters.
A Harvard Grant Study showed that people who did more housework in childhood were happier later in life. Marty Rossmann of the University of Minnesota, who analysed data from a longitudinal study on kids and chores (PDF), found that "the best predictor of young adults' success in their mid-20s" was whether they participated in household tasks when they were three or four.
Chores can give kids a better sense of judgement, make them less impulsive and help them become more aware of others people's needs. Nobody is born with these skills — instead they must be learned and practised, one icky wipe-down of rubbish bin lid at a time.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of How to Raise an Adult, brilliantly summed it up like this, telling Tech Insider: "By making [kids] do chores — taking out the garbage, doing their own laundry — they realise I have to do the work of life in order to be part of life. It's not just about me and what I need in this moment, but that I'm part of an ecosystem. I'm part of a family. I'm part of a workplace".
Bonus: Your kid won't be that 20-year-old in college, who stares blankly at dishwasher, wondering what all those buttons are for.
Here's a list of chores that kids can do, by age group. But how do you make chores a natural part of kids' lives instead of something they have to be bribed or threatened to do? It takes a shift in perspective. This is how parents can approach chores with kids of every age:
Toddlers and Preschoolers: Use Their Natural Enthusiasm as Leverage
Little kids want to do everything that big people do, so use their enthusiasm to build an "everyone pitches in" mindset, even if their ways of "helping" mean more work for you. Lythcott-Haims writes in How to Raise an Adult, "If building life skills means you know that your kid can pour himself some orange juice and clean it up if he spills, work ethic means knowing that your kid will pitch in and help when someone else spills something, instead of thinking 'that doesn't concern me', and walking away".
Elementary Schoolers: Keep Your Expectations Low
On Wired, Laura Grace Weldon wrote about the time when her seven and nine-year-old were about to wash the floor, when one of their neighbour friends knocked on the door, asking to play. She had never done chores, nor seen kids doing chores and begged to be included.
I gave them a bucket of slightly soapy water and they went to work with rags, scooting across the wet floor on their knees like crabs, giggling as the floor got wetter and their scooting became sloshy sliding. Their method didn't matter to me. I was holding the baby and diverting the toddler while peeling potatoes and finishing up a work-related call.
I was pretty sure the floor would be somewhat cleaner when they were done. They dried it with towels, moved the furniture back with appropriate grunting and groaning, then slumped on the couch. They looked entirely relaxed, as people do when satisfied with a job well done.
When I got off the phone I came in to thank them. They were admiring how the floor caught the light and cautioning our toddler to keep his sippy cup on the table.
A takeaway here is to be at peace with imperfection. Yes, it might take your kid six minutes to peel a potato and there will still be some bits of skin left on it, but whatever. In her book, Lythcott-Haims adds, "It's no fun for them if you ask them to do something and then micromanage every step. They won't do it as well or as efficiently as you — accept that — but they'll get better and better over time".
Middle Schoolers: Help Them Be Proactive
Instead of handing your kids a checklist of to-dos, help them become active, independent, always-contributing members of the household by prompting them to look around and ask: What else can I do? Julie Lythcott-Haims writes, "By this age you can develop your kid's work ethic further by asking them to anticipate the next steps involved in a task, or the longest-sequence of related tasks, rather than waiting to be told what to do next. You can ask, 'I want to be sure that garbage doesn't overflow next time. What can we do about that?'"
With child siblings, there will always be fights over who gets to name the new puppy, who gets to pick out the film for Movie Night, who gets to be the green gingerbread man in Candy Land and other matters that change as swiftly as one can cry out, "It's so not fair!" Instead of getting upset, parents can help them solve the argument peacefully by holding a chore auction.
High Schoolers: Give Them Big Projects
Teenagers can do just about any chore that adults can do and yet many parents still shield them from the most laborious tasks. Have them assemble that new bicycle for their kid sister, or build the IKEA dresser, or reorganise the garage. In the end, they can look at their work and think, I did that.
Piles of parenting books say that kids shouldn't get paid by their parents for doing routine chores, though it's OK for them to make some extra cash by doing work that's above and beyond — what exactly that entails is up to mum and dad.
Some other tips for approaching chores with kids of any age:
- Work side-by-side with them. Don't give out directives while sitting on the couch watching Netflix. It's a family effort.
- Expect their help, writes Lythcott-Haims. Don't justify your request with a lengthy explanation. A simple "I need your help" is enough.
- Thank them, but don't overdo it on the praise. No gold stars are necessary for folding a shirt.