Monday, July 27, 2009

What a Chore!

Lately, I have been fielding some questions on my kids' chore list and various related topics, so I thought I would use this post to explain how and why we handle this area.

Actually, when I had only two or three young kids (who had chores!) it bemused me when people would act surprised that my husband and I would expect them to participate in "housekeeping duties". People wanted to know why we "forced" our kids to help clear the dinner table or unload the dryer. Were we paying them an allowance or giving them "gold stars" (???) on a chart? (The answer is no to both questions.)

The whole "chore thing" evolved very naturally from both my husband's and my upbringings; we were raised in families where each member participated in helping to make the family home a nice place to live. After all, if each of us like to eat meals (and from clean dishes!), wear clean clothes, and have a clean floor to walk on, then it falls to each member of the family to help keep the house in some kind of order. The family home "belongs" to each member, and when something belongs to you, you naturally have a sense of pride and investiture in that thing.

So, it just seemed natural to both my husband and me to assume that, just as we included our children in other aspects of family life (meals, vacations, etc), we would also include them in the care-taking aspect of family life. It was only when other people began to question us as to why we would do such a thing, that I began to analyze our reasons more closely.

The first reason outlined above -- a sense of pride and belonging -- was the first and most obvious reason to me. I could see a real sense of joy and pride on my 20-month-old's face as he carefully walked the salad dressing from the fridge to the dinner table; he was helping Mom and Dad get ready for dinner!

The next reason that occurred to me was that I was preparing my kids for the rest of their lives. Before you start to think that I'm getting overly dramatic and puffed-up about a 9-year-old taking out the garbage, remember this: the child who is expected to clean up after himself, eventually makes the leap to the college student who can keep his dorm room AND his college classes organized (i.e. the less new things he has to cope with, the better his chances of academically succeeding).

Thirdly, after child #3 made her appearance, it was beginning to dawn on me that doing the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and errand-running for five people was not something that could successfully be achieved by only one person. Yes, it could be done, but it was not done well or without a cost (my sanity, for one thing!). I was relating my stress and feelings of failure to my oldest son's teacher, who then looked quizzically at me and said, "Do you think that I should not expect the kids in my class to help clean up a spill or clean up something they are finished working on? Because, I do expect them to participate in all aspects of classroom life. I would not be able to teach even one lesson, if I spent my entire day cleaning up after these kids!". To quote a celebrity I'm not too fond of, it was a "light bulb" moment for me. Being a "mom" was not the equivalent of being a slave! Duh! So, now one of my favorite sayings to my kids is, "Did I dirty all the dishes that are in that sink? No? So, maybe we can all take turns cleaning up the mess we all made."

So, do my kids get an allowance for these chores? Nope. I believe that helping to make our home a nice, livable place should be the reward in and of itself. If I have extra chores that I would like them to do, I post them on our dry-erase board along with the dollar amount I am willing to pay and any child that would like that 1-time extra job (and money!) can write his/her initials next to that job. Just on observation, I have seen rewards like allowances and gold-star charts fail time and again because the reward loses it's allure. If I expect that my child is able and should have a certain chore, and I explain why ("it helps our family, it makes our home more inviting to friends") they are expected to do it, then I don't have to field any arguments/statements such as, "I don't feel like loading the dishwasher. I don't care if I don't get an allowance this week.".

Does all of this mean that my husband and I are slave-drivers, who sit on our couch and pick up our feet so the kids can sweep underneath them? Gosh, that would be nice! However, if I expect my kids to take pride in their home, then I have to set a good example. Things like cooking, some of the laundry, some garbage duty, driving, shopping, changing diapers, nursing babies, etc still fall to me to complete (hopefully, cheerfully!). The rest of the chores, are divvied up between everyone else. At the end of this post, I will give an example of what chores are appropriate/expected for certain age groups in our home.

OK, so when do I let my kids "be kids"? Well, I say, who the heck could STOP them from being kids?! The oldest child's actual TOTAL time spent doing chores each day, averages a little less than an hour (give or take the day, and how much he drags his feet!). That leaves plenty of time to play, read, relax, goof around, or watch TV. I have met the children (who will remain nameless, mostly because there are too many to name!) who are not expected to lift a finger in their own homes, and they are usually (not always) disinterested in schoolwork, always looking to be entertained, and generally unconscious of anyone else's needs. The flip side of this is the children who are expected to participate in household chores: they are usually (again, not always!) excited about new academic challenges, eager to find things to do, and very conscious of other people's physical and emotional needs. (If you are the parent of a child whose biggest "chore" is to brush his own teeth, but you swear he is going to be the doctor who cures cancer while running 3 soup kitchens... well, call me when this actually comes to pass.)
Also, (to paraphrase Spiderman) with increased responsibility come increased privileges! Obviously, if you can show me that you can cheerfully accomplish your chores and wake up on time every day, then I can extend your bedtime by 30 to 60 minutes (depending on age). If you show me that you are responsible enough to wipe up a spills you make without my asking you and keep your room tidy, then I can trust you to ride your bike to the library by yourself. These are just examples, and only you know what privileges are appropriate for your kids, but don't forget that you need to recognize their growing abilities and responsibilities, too! How it makes their little faces light up!

All this being said, the proof is always in the pudding and am still waiting on the finished product. I do have some pretty good examples in myself, my husband, and all of our siblings (15 in total!); we are all fairly well-rounded adults, who lead active, productive, and happy lives. Those of us who are married have an understanding of the give-and-take of this vocation, and those of us who are parents also understand the sacrifices involved; so far, no one has been overly shocked at the work involved, nor the at the awesome rewards received. Most of the time, I think we view chores as a part of life, not as a drudgery to avoid. Going to work is "what you do", not something to constantly complain about and avoid. Would we have turned out differently if our parents had not "involved" us in household chores as children? I cannot be sure, but I do have some "anecdotal evidence" of our peers in similar life-stations, and they don't seem to be as well-adjusted. Just an observation, mind you.

So, if my opinion counts for anything (this matter is up for debate in many circles!), I say, "Don't be afraid to include your children in household chores!". It can be rewarding and enriching for all of you, and, guaranteed, everyone will learn something!

-help set and clear table (does not have to be done to adult standards; learning that the fork goes to the left of the plate can be taught later, over time.)
-sweep crumbs from table with small hand-broom and dustpan
-help Mom, Dad, older sibling switch loads of laundry (can add soap, turn dials, press buttons)
-help fold his/her own laundry (again, will not be to adult standards) and put away in drawers
-"wash" dishes (more fun for them, than for you, but they do eventually gain some knowledge!)
-clean up the spills he/she makes (again, not to adult standards, but you can finish up when they are not looking!)
-do weeding and planting in a garden (Thanks to Diane for reminding me of this!)
-Keep his/her own room neat and tidy
-put away toys that he/she plays with (younger kids will need some encouragement/direction)

-more involved in setting and clearing of table (can put flatware in proper places, wrap up leftovers, rinse dishes)
-unload silverware from dishwasher (actually, some personalities are really suited and soothed by placing all the pieces in their correct places!)
-sweep floors and vacuum area rugs
-take dirty laundry to laundry room and help switch loads.
-fold own laundry and put it away
-clean windows and mirrors (a small spray bottle filled with vinegar/water mixture and paper towel are all they need!)
-Simple cleaning jobs, such as a small bathroom sink or polishing a wood side table.
-Keep bedroom clean
-put away his/her own toys and offer help to younger siblings
-help put away non-perishable items from grocery store

-unload plates, bowls, glasses, etc from dishwasher and kids older than 8 can even load the dishwasher quite well!
-take out garbage
-set and clear table
-sweep and vacuum floors
-make his/her own lunch for school*** Actually, my kids start taking lunches at age 5 and I have NEVER made a lunch for them. If they pack their own lunch, then they will be more likely to know how much to take and only take the foods they like (you must "supervise nutritionally"!), so NO WASTE!*****
-mop floors and vacuum bigger areas
-carry groceries into house from car and help put away
-can handle (and usually enjoy!) cleaning a powder room or straightening a living room.
-Switch loads of laundry from washer to dryer (this is better as a "team sport")
-Keep bedroom clean
-help younger children with their chores, if needed
-pet care

-All of the above chores listed are appropriate for this age and can continue in differing ways, as older kids will have more homework, more demanding sport schedules, and even jobs!
-small errand running (kids on bikes can return library books, run to the corner store to buy milk, while driving teens -- I can't wait! -- can grocery shop or carpool younger sibs to friends' houses)
-yard work, such as mowing lawns.


  1. Well, for one;
    I totally agree with your analysis on why kids need to do chores and how you get them to do them and not paying them. You have an almost identical view as I did and my parents did on chores and how it helps each child to grow up and be able to take care of themselves and their belongings.
    I did use a chore chart that spelled out each job (in detail so there couldn't be any argument) and everyone in the family, including parents were on the chart. My set of chores was somewhat modified since parents have extra responsibilities like paying the bills, driving kids to school functions, Dr. appts, etc. etc. It worked best when each chore was for a week. That way on Saturday when we each did the deep cleaning, the next person would be starting off with clean and fresh rooms or duties. I inspected of course and little ones, like you say (up till about 9) considered their chores to be fun.

  2. We have a "chore schedule", which sounds like what you're describing. For example, which kids are on setting the table that day (all meals) and which kids are on clearing. It DOES eliminate arguments, you're right. Plus, Mommy here has a poor memory for things like schedules, so it helps with that too!