You’re standing at the dishwasher, loading the dishes after having made dinner that evening, when you look up: Your children are sitting at the table, done with their meals, their dirty plates in front of them. They’re completely lost in books or homework or electronic devices, and any moment now they’ll get up and wander off to all parts of the house, making no effort to help, or even hand you their dirty dishes to put into the dishwasher as they leave.
As you stare at them blankly it dawns on you that it’s been awhile since anyone besides you did the dishes, or took out the trash, or folded the laundry. You can blame yourself for not making your children more responsible and you can blame them for not wanting to run to your side to help with something as boring as routine housework, but either way, take a deep breath — then assign some chores.
Most child experts agree that giving children responsibilities, even those as young as toddlers and preschoolers, is beneficial for a variety of reasons, from helping parents handle the burdens of a household to creating responsible young adults who aren’t shocked by the real world (and who don’t offend college roommates with filthy habits).
“Kids who do chores are better in all aspects of their lives,” said Deb Cohen, assistant director of the web-based Center for Parenting Education. More than merely teaching them life skills they’ll need as they get older — such as how to work a washing machine or cook basic meals — a consistent system of chores teaches responsibility and organization that can help them at home and school and later, within their jobs and even relationships. Chores boost children’s self-confidence, Cohen said, because they find a sense of accomplishment when completing their obligations, and families connect when everyone feels like a valuable contributor.
There’s no right or wrong way to address chores as long as the message is a consistent one and reflects the family’s values, Cohen said. For example, some parents expect children to keep their rooms clean and pick up after themselves as a general rule, but assign specific chores that benefit the whole house, such as taking out the trash or feeding pets or vacuuming.
For some families, chores are seen as something that everyone should do — without getting paid for it — because everyone eats, wears clothes, brushes his or her teeth and contributes to general chaos within the house. Other parents may choose to give money weekly after the week’s chores are done, or pay their children for things that go beyond the usual tasks, such as yardwork or babysitting.
But wait, your children balk at chores? You’re not alone. It’s just human nature.
Cohen said younger children especially don’t understand the realities of running a household. They’re impulsive, immature beings who want immediate gratification and aren’t interested in things that don’t give them that, such as vacuuming or cleaning their rooms or taking out the trash.
But responsibility comes with maturity, she said, and that’s easier when you start early rather than springing a chore list on a 12-year-old. But if you do find yourself putting your foot down with an older child, keep an open line of communication about what you want. Set expectations and don’t let them lapse because school activities, friends’ time or sports get in the way.
“It comes down to values, to saying that this is important to us,” Cohen said.
Orlando, Fla., resident Toni Anderson, a mother of seven children ages 7 to 22 and TheHappy Housewife.com blogger, has always relied on her children to help around the house. But she came up with a written chore system six or seven years ago that divides common household duties by age, down to her youngest, who were toddlers and preschoolers at the time. The list was posted on the fridge for all to see — and it worked.
Anderson said having a large family naturally allowed her to engage her children in household duties, but even for single-child households, the point is to start early enough with them that helping out becomes second nature.
A 2-year-old “thinks everything is fun, especially when they can do it with you,” Anderson said. They shouldn’t be unloading knives from a dishwasher or handling chemicals, but they can wipe chairs with warm water and dish soap or learn to fold a dish towel. That helps “when they get to be 12 and they catch on ... that this is really work,” Anderson said. She pays an allowance to her older children but only for heavy-duty jobs, she said, such as mowing the yard — duties that she’d likely pay someone else for if they didn’t have capable kids.
“Everyone unloads the dishwasher because everyone eats,” she said. “(If) you contribute to the mess, you contribute to the cleanup.”
But she said it’s important that you involve your children in the household chores along with you so that they realize that the duties are shared by everyone.
“They have to see that you’re working, too,” Anderson said. Getting children to do their chores “may still be a struggle, but they may feel it’s more fair.”
Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson is spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a Seattle-based pediatrician and author of “Mama Doc Medicine.” She has a blog by the same name.
Chores are “really personal choices” that parents make, she said, but they’re vital in the development of children as good citizens, and in teaching that parents “aren’t just here to serve.”
“Kids don’t want to be freeloaders,” she said. “It doesn’t feel good in the end to sneak by.”
But consistency, however, is key when enforcing responsibilities. It’s a lot easier to do chores for younger children when they take a long time, she said, or they make a mess in the process of cleaning up. And it’s easy to let older children’s responsibilities slide as they begin to have more demands on their time from school and sports and jobs. It is more challenging to stick with the routines, especially when you’ve had a hard day and your children aren’t being cooperative.
“It’s a lot more work to involve our kids, (but) consistency is the secret sauce to parenthood,” she said. If a child fails to complete their chores and they’re still allowed to participate in sports or go out with their friends, “your word means nothing.”
Anderson, the Florida mom, posted her chore list on her blog, and said she received feedback from parents who objected to giving chores to young children, in particular.
“There’s this perception that kids need to be kids, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some responsibility,” Anderson said. “Kids do not run the house — you’re the parent, you run the house, and it’s your job to teach them how to grow up to be productive adults.”
She added, “that doesn’t come from letting them run wild for 18 years.”
Anderson acknowledges that parents must be mindful not to put too much on their children’s shoulders, especially when a child is eager to help and wants to do more.
“They’re so capable at a young age, but you don’t want to give them something (to do) that’s dangerous,” she said.
Anderson said her parenting style paid off, as her two oldest — who live on their own — are self-sufficient adults who now talk about teens they encounter who don’t share their work ethic.
“There were times when they didn’t love it,” Anderson said of her children and their chores, “but they realize it was worth it.”