"My little guy does not like it when I cook or do laundry or do the dishes. Why am I not paying attention to him? But I soon realized that he loves to help. He puts clothes in the washing machine, gathers potatoes to bring to the kitchen, brings me clothes hangers. And yes, it takes much longer than if I had done it all myself. But he actually squeals with delight at being given his next task. And I end up being much less frustrated." –Wendy
Most parents wish their kids would help more around the house. That would be a good thing, right?
The answer is yes, and not just because it makes our lives as parents easier. (The truth is, it would probably be easier to do it ourselves.) Research shows that kids who have household responsibilities are more likely to step up and help others outside the home. My theory is that these kids are accustomed to helping, and they see their contributions as valuable. Responsibility at home really does make kids better citizens.
So why don't kids help more, and what can you do about it in your own home?
1. Because kids hate chores.
It's a reasonable attitude, given that most adults find housework boring and menial. After all, kids have so many other, more interesting, demands on their time. And they really can't see why it matters if the floor gets swept.
Make it about fun and mastery. Remember that if you make the experience of contributing to the family feel like a chore, your child will avoid his chores like the plague. Instead, think of this as a chance for your child to enjoy getting good at something. Look at how she made the kitchen table shine! How'd he get so fast at pairing up socks? Over time, they'll come to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, and even to take pride in being a capable cook or gardener.
Make it about connection and appreciation. Recognize that your child doesn't see much intrinsic value in household work, unless she's doing it with you. Instead of sending her off to work by herself, see the work as an opportunity to bond with her. Play his favorite music and sing along. Find the joy in working together, and inspire your child with it. Tell him how much it means to you to have his help:
"Thank you so much! We make a great team ... Many hands make lighter work. And then we have more time for fun together!"
Remember that anyone will resist less if they have choices about which chores to do. And it doesn't hurt to have a little motivation waiting after the family clean-up on Saturday mornings, like a trip to the park.
2. Because it's easier to do it ourselves.
When children are young enough to be interested in helping with housework, we shoo them away. By the time they could be helpful, it takes so much time to teach them that it's still easier to do it ourselves. Besides, by then, they're absorbed in other, more exciting pursuits, and the battle to get them to "help" feels too frustrating.
Change your attitude about why kids are doing chores. It isn't to save you time, at least not initially. It's to learn life skills, and to experience how good it feels to contribute. Expect to spend time teaching and supervising.
The younger kids are when they begin doing household tasks, the better. Toddlers (like Wendy's in the quote above) usually love helping. Consciously involve your child in what you're doing from an early age, even though it takes much more time. Make it fun for them. If you set expectations like:
- "Everyone works together at our house".
- "We always clean up our own messes. Come on, I'll help you."
Then, children begin to see themselves as contributing something of value. That's a basic human need, and children enjoy that feeling as much as adults do.
If your kids are older, do you still need to work with them? Yes, if you want them to enjoy chores and learn how to do them well! Rather than assigning chores, try working as a team. Have each child participate in a project while you work with them. Your job is solely to be the coordinator, troubleshoot any problems that come up, and keep things fun and on track. For instance, maybe your 12-year-old makes eggs for breakfast while your ten-year-old makes the toast. Yes, that is actually realistic, but you'll need to be there as the assistant to help everything go smoothly. There's no reason your children can't enjoy making meals for the family by the time they're teens, so that everyone in the family cooks once a week—but it takes your involvement over time to get to that point.
3. Because kids "need" us to help them.
Kids do need babying from time to time. It reassures them that we're there to protect and nurture them. Besides, they have to work hard to keep it together at school all day, and they need plenty of opportunities at home to relax their executive selves and let their baby-selves come out. If they don't get those opportunities, you can be sure the baby-self will surface as soon as you ask your child to help out, or even to put on his own shoes.
Don't be afraid to "baby" your child when he asks you for help, and make sure he gets plenty of other opportunities to be silly and "off duty," including spending special time together. Then, once you're sure that he's getting his need to feel "cared for" met, when he asks for help with a task you know he can do, stay with him, offering encouragement but letting him handle it. If you keep your sense of humor along with your expectation that your child actually can make his own peanut butter sandwich, he'll be astonished to find that he really can do it himself, and his confidence to try new tasks will grow.
4. Because kids don't have time.
Our culture's way of training young people to participate in society is school. They spend hours in class, and then more hours doing homework. If they participate in sports, music, or other activities, they're required to spend a tremendous amount of time practicing. By the time they're in middle school, they often have no time to play. By the time they're in high school, they often have no time to sleep!
During the school year, give your child responsibilities that can be handled in an hour on the weekend. Then, as summer begins, have a discussion about responsibility and work out a schedule that asks more of your child. Take the opportunity while school is not in session to teach life skills and have your child make a real contribution to the household.
5. Because kids don't complete tasks thoroughly.
You can't really expect your child to do a job as well as you would. You probably weren't so thorough at his age, either.
Teach. When you teach your child the task, be sure to break it down into smaller steps and help your child master each one. Take photos of them doing it, even once your child can read, and make a small poster with each step.
Cede control: Once your child takes responsibility for a task, try to minimize your control over that task. If he knows you're going to do it over, why should he bother trying?
Focus on the positive, so your child wants to do an even better job. Think about how you respond if someone criticizes the way you do a task at work, compared to when they find the positive in what you've done. So if your son's dresser drawers are a shambles, at least appreciate that he's putting away his own clothes. If your daughter takes forever to finish the dishes because she chats on the phone the whole time, consider that it's really up to her how she makes the job palatable. And if there are streaks in the bathroom mirror, use them as a reminder that you didn't have to clean the bathroom this week!
6. Because kids "forget" their responsibilities or complain bitterly, and we give up.
Kids have a lot on their minds, from the upcoming soccer game to whether their sister got a bigger piece of pie. You can expect to have to remind kids of their responsibilities. And you can expect them to complain a bit.
Don't give up, and don't get exasperated. Chores will never be first on your child's list, and that's okay. Keep your sense of humor. Then, when your child complains about helping around the house, or needs reminding, empathize and restate your expectation:
"I know, wouldn't it be great if the dishes washed themselves? Come on, let's go."
Post a written routine that includes the responsibilities that everyone has signed up for, and then be consistent and cheerful about your expectations. That's the only way to create a habit, and what you want is a habit so your child does it automatically. After all, they don't have a lot of incentive to put their plates in the dishwasher, so the only reason to do it in the beginning is that you'll be in their face (in a nice way) reminding them until they do it. After a while, it will simply be a habit—this is what we do after a meal—and most of the time, you won't have to remind them.
Remember that reminding doesn't mean nagging. Which category your reminders fall into might depend on your tone of voice. Experiment with being silly and even ridiculous when you have to remind your child about a task until everyone is laughing. The anxiety will disappear, and any power struggle will disappear. In fact, your disappointment about having to remind your kids will disappear. And once there's lightness and fun about it, you might even find that your child no longer needs prompting.
Like the rest of us, when children know that doing something will consistently get them a smile, hug, or warm thank you, they're more likely to do it.
By contrast, if we think they should do it without reminders, we get irritable and the whole interaction is fraught with tension. Not surprisingly, they're more likely to shy away from even thinking about that chore, which is loaded with a layer of unpleasant associations.
Yes, it will take more effort to get your child to put his own clothes in the hamper than to do it yourself. But the repeated effort is worth it, because over time those tasks will become a habit, like brushing his teeth. Kids really do rise to meet our expectations, as long as we stay connected so they want to please us. And one day he will serve you a meal he's made, and you'll realize you've raised a young person who can take care of himself and others, who makes a real contribution. Congratulations!