Housework seems simple, but for many parents it’s fraught with emotion. It’s easy to slide into thinking that when our children don’t pick up, it means they don’t love us or they don’t respect us. We may feel angry, resentful, or dejected. We may wonder how we ended up in the role of household drudge to our royal children!
Too often, attempts to get kids involved in chores take the form of angry demands. These might get some immediate action, but the effects won’t last. Harsh scolding from a frustrated parent certainly won’t get children to embrace their role as valuable contributors to a smoothly running household. No healthy child is going to accept the message, “I’m suffering, so you should, too!”
Families today are busy. According to Pew research, about 60% of families have dual incomes. On average each week, mothers spend 21 hours doing paid work, 18 hours doing housework, and 14 hours doing childcare. Fathers spend 37 hours per week doing paid work, 10 hours doing housework, and 7 hours doing childcare. What about the kids? According to research by Sandra Hofferth, children between six and twelve years of age spend an average of just under three hours per week on housework (and almost 14 hours per week watching television!). While it’s important that children not have to shoulder adult-size responsibilities, pitching in by helping with household chores won’t hurt them and may even help them.
Sometimes parents don’t involve children in chores because it feels like too much effort to supervise them. If we just do the chores ourselves, we know the jobs will get done right, and we won’t have to deal with arguments or delays. But there are good reasons to go to the extra effort to get children to participate in housework.
First, there’s the issue of competence. Housework may not be glamorous, but it’s necessary, and knowing how to do it efficiently and effectively is a life skill.
Second, there’s the issue of values. Insisting on chores sends children the message that being part of a family means pitching in and doing things for the greater good.
Third, there’s the issue of personal well-being. Research tells us that children actually feel happier when they make a meaningful contribution to the family. A diary study by Eva Telzer and Andrew Fuligni found that US teens of Latin American, Asian, and European descent reported higher levels of happiness when they provided more family assistance, and they did not find this work stressful.
So, just tell your child, “Scrubbing the bathroom will fill you with joy!” Surely that will inspire your child to pick up a sponge! Well, maybe not…
Here are some practical ways to get kids to help with housework.
No one knows automatically how to do housework; we need to learn. Doing chores with your child allows you to offer appropriate guidance and help. Give lots of positive feedback: “Oh, you got the sheets nice and smooth!” or “You made the sink sparkling clean! That looks so much better than it was!” Working alongside you not only helps children develop skills, it also makes chores seem more tolerable. If all or at least several family members are pitching in at the same time, your child is less likely to feel individually persecuted by housework.
Chores can become habits when we do them at the same time every day or every week. When/then routines help. When your children have hung up their coats after school, then they can have snack. When they’ve put their dishes in the dishwasher, then they can go play. While the habits are still forming, you’ll need to stand nearby to make sure these routines happen.
With older children, you may want to hold a family meeting and get their help with deciding how to divvy up chores fairly. Do they prefer assigned chores or rotating chores? When is the best time during the week to do chores? Having some say in how housework gets done can make kids more willing to participate. Put your kids in charge of creating a list or chart to record the agreement.
Be matter-of-fact, rather than demanding, as you establish habits. “It’s Wednesday night. Dirty clothes need to go in the laundry.” After awhile, these behaviors will become automatic, although kids will occasionally have temporary backslides.
Kids are more willing to repeat a short burst of tidying than a long marathon of cleaning. When I had young children, I used to set a timer for 15 minutes, and we’d all run around frantically picking up as fast as we could until the bell went off. Then we stopped and did something else. My goal was a livable home, not magazine-inspired perfection.
One of the most important things you can do to make chores feel manageable is to get rid of clutter. When there are too many toys to put on the shelves and too many clothes to fit easily in the drawers, when the bookshelf is already stuffed with books, the closet is crowded with coats, and there are 57 papers stuffed at the bottom of their backpacks, kids feel overwhelmed. They feel like the fish in Dr. Seuss’ classic book, The Cat in the Hat, who exclaims, “This mess is so big / And so deep and so tall, / We can not pick it up! / There is no way at all!”
When my children were younger, I arbitrarily decided that six toys were plenty for each child. (A multi-piece toy, like Legos, counted as “one” toy.) I stashed some of our good quality “extra” toys in the basement, so I could swap toys occasionally. Sometimes the kids outgrew these “extra” toys before I remembered to get them out. Apparently we didn’t need them.
With young children, it’s generally easier to get rid of things when they’re not around. Older children (with better memories) will want to have some say in what gets kept or discarded.
Once you've pared down possessions, help your children establish a regular home for the things they need and enjoy. Consider putting picture or word labels on boxes and drawers, getting a hanging pocket shoe holder for hats and gloves, and using hooks or clip hangers for clothes.
If your child tends to collect things, give her a “treasure box” where she can keep her precious items. When the box gets full, she needs to pick only her very favorite items to save and get rid of some of the less-preferred items.
Put on lively music. Let your children use cleaning tools they enjoy. A feather duster, spray bottle, canister vacuum, or sink full of soap suds seem ordinary to adults, but for kids they can be fun. If your attitude while doing the chores is light-hearted, your child will be more willing to participate. It doesn’t take much effort to “accidentally” throw a sheet over a child’s head while making a bed or squirt the cleaner in the shape of a smiley face. When my kids were little, I had a fuzzy spider puppet that would come out and tickle them when they’d done a good job cleaning up. (I’d read somewhere that spiders like clean houses.) When you’re done with chores, express appreciation by doing something fun with your children to celebrate your nice clean home and the extra time you have because they pitched in.
What chores did you have to do growing up?
How do you get your children to pitch in with housework?
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author and clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). She frequently speaks at schools and conferences about parenting and children’s social and emotional development. www.EileenKennedyMoore.com
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Growing Friendships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation. You’re welcome to link to this post, but please don’t reproduce it without written permission from the author.
boy washing dishes: “Good boy” by Homini:) / CC BY 2.0
girl sweeping: “Doing chores with a smile! Love it!” by Michael Sheehan / CC By 2.0
For further reading:
Hofferth, S. L. (2009). Changes in American children’s time – 1997 to 2003. International Time Use Research, 1, 26-47.
Hooper, L. M., DeCoster, J., White, N., & Voltz, M. L. (2011). Characterizing the magnitude of the relation between self‐reported childhood parentification and adult psychopathology: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67, 1028-1043
Parker, K. & Wang, W. (2013). Modern parenthood: Roles of moms and dads converge as they balance work and family. Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends.
Telzer, E. H. & Fuligni, A. J. (2009). Daily family assistance and the psychological well-being of adolescents from Latin American, Asian, and European backgrounds. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1177-1189.