In praise of chores

Doing the dishesKristy Clason was appalled when she saw the homework assignment her son brought home one day. The gym teacher at his California school sent her students home with instructions to learn how to do laundry.

“Apparently too many kids were coming into P.E. and not dressing out because the maid hadn’t washed their uniforms,” Clason, now a Phoenix resident, recalls. It confirmed what her children kept telling her: that they were the hardest-working kids in the neighborhood—all of their friends had housekeepers, gardeners and dog-walkers and didn’t do much for themselves.

Clason quickly signed off on her son’s assignment. She’d already taught all four of her children to do their own laundry.

“I’m a big advocate of chores and household responsibilities,” she explains. “Chores are not just chores. They enable our children to become self-sufficient and teach them how to work. I believe that is the biggest deficit we have right now. There are all of these 20-somethings out there who don’t know how to work hard.” She’s confident that when her children leave home, they will know how to take care of themselves.

Getting kids to pitch in on housework isn’t easy. It requires patience, perseverance and perspective. But when we don’t teach children how to care for themselves and their belongings we handicap them and teach them instead to rely on others to meet their needs.

If your goal is a clean house, you will miss the mark. Working to empower your children through chores and household responsibilities reaps a far greater reward.

Get a head start

Clason insists that caring for their home is a responsibility that comes with living there, so she does not reimburse her children for their efforts. “They have always, from the beginning, put their own toys away,” she says. “As soon as they were developmentally ready, they were helping.”

Start early in your child’s life to instill the sense of empowerment and accomplishment that results from a job well done. Young children can put their plates in the dishwasher after meals or move clothes from the dryer into a laundry basket. “As long as they’re verbal—you understand them and they understand you—[from] about 2 years old kids are ready to help out,” advises Dawn Ebbs, a Scottsdale mother of three and a Redirecting Children’s Behavior instructor who teaches a parenting course, based on the work of Kathryn Kvols at Scottsdale Healthcare.

“Start right from beginning, really focusing on positive things they’ve done,” counsels psychologist Robbie Adler-Tapia, Ph.D. and co-author of EMDR and the Art of Psychotherapy with Children. “By praising them, you are helping them feel proud of themselves. Say, ‘Wow! You must feel really proud of yourself. Look what you’ve accomplished.’ Reinforce what you want to see repeated. It’s like a slot machine: the more you put in, the higher the rate of return.”

Be a team player

If you’re getting a later start with your child, don’t despair. Ebbs urges parents to articulate the message that your family is a team and your child is part of it. You all work together toward a common goal. Whether that goal is taking care of daily chores so the family can go to the park or putting away soccer cleats so you can get to the game on time Saturday, the family works together.

A key part of this strategy, Ebbs counsels, is to “treat your children with respect. Give them jobs that you would do. Often we give them the ones we don’t want to do, like picking up the dog poop, but if they see you out doing it occasionally, or if you help them, they will feel better about what they are doing. Always ask yourself, ‘How do you wish you were treated as a child?’ To produce a good teammate, you must first be a good teammate.”

Chances are, your kids are just as tired of picking up their toys over and over as you are of unloading the dishwasher. Experiment by switching jobs. “There is a good job for everyone,” says Karen Haymond, a Chandler mother of four. At the age of 2, her daughter Elise helped out by cleaning fingerprints off the water cooler with a baby wipe.

Ebbs recommends starting with one consistent responsibility. “Right now, my 3-year-old, Lilly, just has to put her books away. When she starts preschool we will add things like putting her shoes by the door and putting her socks away.” Add new jobs one at a time, regularly assessing the workload.

Ask your child, “What do you need to be responsible for? What do you need to get done before you leave for school or when you come home?” Write those jobs down on a list to post on the back of your child’s door or next to the garage door. For younger children, draw pictures—or cut them out of magazines—that remind them of their chores.

Posting a list takes the burden of accountability off of you. Ask, “Is your list finished?” when kids ask to go visit a friend’s house. Use visual cues to help your child develop a sense of task completion. Post a photograph of your child’s room in an acceptable state so you don’t have to assess the job before your child knows it’s done.

Lighten the load

Being organized yourself helps your kids do their jobs, says Clason. “Label toy boxes with words or pictures so they can easily put things away in the right place. Avoiding clutter and having a dedicated place for every belonging helps kids remember.”

When her kids were younger, Adler-Tapia filled seven boxes with all of her children’s toys and gave the rest away. One box came out each day of the week.

“When there’s so much available, it’s just overwhelming,” she says. “Reduce what there is to play with and you reduce what there is to clean up. Kids can have a blast with empty boxes. At the end of the week you just throw them in the recycle [bin].”

Do what you can to make household upkeep easy and fun and your team will reflect your efforts. Clason offers some tips to get sluggish movers hopping:

• Invent clean-up games. Race your kids to see who can clean up the fastest or the most.

• Sing Barney’s “clean up” song, which is often used in school classrooms: “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.” (You can also sing “Time to put the toys away” to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down.”)

• If your kids like to collect “treasures” (better known to moms as “junk”) give them shoebox “treasure chests” you can hide under their beds.

• The Ten-Minute Tidy is a popular tool in the Ebbs’ home. Set your timer and see how much you can get done together before time runs out.

Breaking larger chores into manageable pieces to be divvied up allows children to participate in bigger jobs. The Haymond kids are each assigned a section of the dishwasher to unload. Chloe does the silverware, Carter puts plastics away and Austin, the oldest, handles breakables.

The kids’ bathroom is similarly divided. Chloe is responsible for one sink and Carter gets the other. Older children use rags and non-toxic cleaner like Holy Cow, while younger children use baby wipes, a safer alternative to bleach wipes. There is a hidden bonus to delegating this responsibility: “They are much more careful with their toothpaste globs and spits and spills,” Haymond notes.

She keeps a list of bathroom cleaning details taped to the mirror so kids needn’t ask when the bathroom is done but can check the list and know for themselves when their responsibilities are fulfilled.

Leverage yourself

A family trip to the park or free time to watch a movie together are good motivators for getting chores done in a timely fashion. “My best motivation is when I’ve got everything done on Friday night I get to sit on the couch eating pizza and watching a movie with my mom,” reveals 13-year-old Riley Ebbs. That’s right, parents. Your kids are motivated by spending time with you.

Teenagers may be the exception to that rule, but by then you have more bargaining power. “Teenagers want to hang out with their friends and drive your car,” so make those things contingent on getting chores done, recommends Adler-Tapia.

Teenagers also need money, but often are too busy with school and extra-curricular activities to hold down a job. Offer to pay for extra chores like cleaning out the garage or washing your car. Extend the offer to younger children as well.

“We go crazy giving kids stuff,” says Tapia. “More than they can handle. Let them earn money and watch their piggy banks fill up. Then they can save and buy something they want.”

Money is a good motivator but save it for the extra tasks so it doesn’t detract from the spirit of teamwork and the goal of self-sufficiency when it comes to day-to-day household chores.

Be flexible

If your kids are not getting their work done, pick up the slack and don’t make a big issue out of it. Pushing too hard, yelling and letting “responsibilities” divide your family is counterproductive.

When her kids are really resisting, Ebbs asks herself, “What am I doing wrong?” She advises maintaining a flexible attitude, allowing for changes to the system at any time.

Her 6-year-old recently put her foot down, saying, “It’s too hard!” and refused to finish her responsibilities. Ebbs responded calmly. “When I hear you say that, I hear that you need help,” she told her daughter. She instructs parents to “get in there, help them, physically move their hands if need be.”

When you have a child who is particularly resistant to chores, look for something that motivates them, recommends Clason. Be patient and make room for a child’s individuality. But hold firm to some bottom-line expectations. “They at least kind of have to fit the mold because everybody’s doing it,” she says.

Adler-Tapia has learned that sometimes it’s better to ignore the clutter and simply close the doors to her kids’ rooms. Every couple of weeks or so, the rooms are expected to be “mom clean” but she recognizes that sometimes the kids are just too busy to keep up.

“Honestly, for me, as long as you don’t have bugs in your room, you’re okay. If there are bugs in my house you’re going to pay for it but if they’re doing well in school, they’re well-behaved and polite, who cares? You have to pick your battles.”

Defining your priorities will help you know when to tighten the reins and when to let loose. Assess whether your daily expectations of your children are pointing them in the right direction. “I think that sometimes people get too caught up in the system with rewards and charts and [they] forget the real reason they are doing this, which is teaching self-sufficiency and how to work. Keep an eye on the big picture,” Clason recommends.

Focus on regular upkeep in common-use areas of the house and let logical consequences govern the rest. Adler-Tapia draws the line at retrieving dirty laundry from the piles of debris in her kids’ rooms: “If you don’t bring me your clothes, they stay dirty.”