Monday, January 4, 2016

The Importance of Chores

Every so often I go on a parenting rant. Today is one of those days. I need to rant about the importance of chores.

I think assigning kids chores is a vitally important part of parenting. Yet I know too many parents who don't give their kids chores (or who give only minimal chores). 

This past summer we had two extra kids at our house for a couple of months as a favor for someone whose housing had fallen through between jobs. These are great kids and we care about them, so for the most part we didn't mind having them over, but there was one piece of major friction. They had very little experience doing chores and great resentment at being expected to help. That created some real conflict.

This has been a chronic problem. In the past, when visiting, these kids would open a piece of string cheese and drop the wrapping on the floor rather than take it to the trash. I was floored that they expected others to clean up their mess for them. What parent doesn't teach their child to pick up after themselves?

Well, they quickly learned that when visiting our house, you have to help maintain the space you live in. I didn't expect them to do the same level of cleaning as my kids, but they did have to help pick up toys, clean the room they were in, and do some vacuuming. They did it, but oh my goodness, the whining and moaning that went with that ─ it was ridiculous! But at least they got some exposure to these skills and some experience doing them for a few months.

Sadly, it didn't last once they moved back in with their parents because no one there asks them to help clean, and their parents do only the most minimal cleaning themselves. Obviously, this is a learned behavior. But what is it teaching them for later on in life?

These kids were outraged that my kids have to do chores. In fact, they sowed dissension by constantly telling my kids how horrible they have it because they have to help clean. One of the visitors actually told me I was a bad parent because my kids had "too many chores." Imagine! No, my kids are not domestic slaves, but I do expect them to pitch in and help with the upkeep of the house and yard. Duh. They live here, they help out.

Now, these temporary visitors are not bad kids. They are generally pretty nice and have good hearts, so I took the criticism as an opportunity to open a discussion about the responsibility to help the community you are a part of, but it still appalls me that they think that doing basic chores is excessive.

How in the world are they going to become competent adults who take care of their own household if they never learn the skills to do so? How are they going to be good employees later on if they feel incredibly put upon just cleaning up their own darn mess? How are they going to learn to be considerate of others if they expect others to constantly take care of their needs?

An article in the Wall Street Journal notes:
In a survey of 1,001 U.S. adults released last fall by Braun Research, 82% reported having regular chores growing up, but only 28% said that they require their own children to do them.
That number seems distorted to me, frankly. I doubt that only a quarter of parents today are having kids do chores. But from my observations as a teacher, I am pretty sure that it's true of quite a few families. And I'm shocked at the number of friends of ours who have their kids doing only the most basic of chores.

Now of course, every parent gets to make their own parenting decisions, and no one made me the boss of parenting rules. Every family has to work out their own family balance of various tasks. The way our family divides up the chores doesn't have to be the way someone else's family divides up their chores.

But there is a trend right now away from having kids do many chores, and I believe this is doing a real disservice to those kids.

Chores ─ substantial chores ─ are important in developing a child's character.

Why Do Chores?

Why is it important to have kids help out with chores around the house? Partly it's about developing important life skills that they will need as adults. But I really believe it's more about developing the child's character.

Chores Teach Life Skills

Many kids have no idea how to clean a house, how to cook a decent (non-fast food) meal, or how to do their own laundry. They have no idea how to grow food, take care of a car, weed a garden, or do maintenance tasks around the house ─ because no one has taught them how to do it.

Someday, kids will have to take care of themselves. These skills don't just magically appear at age 18; they have to learn them somewhere along the way. Many schools don't have Home Ec classes anymore, so the only place they will learn these life skills is at home. The best way to learn is by doing. And the best way to learn is to start with a little bit at a time, practicing from a very young age, rather than expecting them to suddenly learn these skills all at once when they move out.

Chores Teach a Work Ethic and Good Habits

Kids need to develop a work ethic. They need to be assigned a task, learn how to complete that task satisfactorily, and then actually complete it. They need to do it over and over again, as part of a routine. They need to learn how to do the rhythm of daily chores, weekly/monthly chores, and periodic deep cleaning chores.

A work ethic for an adult job doesn't just magically spring to life at 18. Developing a work ethic comes from doing chores as a kid, taking care of animals, helping with siblings, completing your homework on time, and helping others out in your community.

Kids who don't do chores and who aren't held to any kind of standards regarding homework and other work never really learn this work ethic. They become incapable adult workers who constantly feel put upon because they have to do things they don't like and things that take real effort to complete. If things go wrong, it's always someone else's fault, and they rarely get things done on time or with satisfactory results.

Chores Teach Strength of Will

Kids need to develop the ability to do things that are hard. Many kids won't try something that is hard, or they give up halfway through because they lack the strength of will to finish things or to make themselves work hard. They want everything easy and handed to them on a plate with very little effort.

Chores, music lessons, sports, crafts, art, exercise, hobbies...all these things help teach strength of will. They help kids learn to apply themselves by doing things that are hard at first, that take perseverance, that take daily discipline.

Chores Teach Accountability and Responsibility

Adults are held accountable for doing their jobs at work, for taking care of themselves and their families, for keeping up the homes they live in, for paying taxes, etc. Accountability doesn't just magically appear. It takes daily application of micro-doses of responsibility and then being held accountable for those small responsibilities.

Children must be held accountable for completing their chores satisfactorily. Otherwise, you negate a large portion of the lesson on work ethics. A job halfway done is not a job well-done. Doing the follow-through is just as important as giving chores in the first place.

Chores Teach Independence and Accomplishment

Kids need to learn how to do tasks without constant supervision and hovering. They need to be shown how to do certain chores, then given the chance to actually do them, even if that means failing at them at first. Learning how to improve is part of the process. When kids learn how to do a chore well, there is a feeling of accomplishment. If an adult steps in and does the chore for them, they don't develop that feeling of competency.

Kids also need to keep practicing chores until they can do them on their own, without being asked. This is one of the hardest parts, but it's still important to strive for it. When they can be trusted to do their chores without being nagged, they develop a feeling of independence. They know that yes, they CAN do hard things, and do it on their own. This will be a huge help as they move into adulthood and are required to do things without reminders or someone holding their hands.

Chores Teach Contributing to the Community 

Children are inherently selfish when they are little. At first, they think about their own needs, not the needs of others, and they want to be taken care of, not do the caretaking. But children live in a larger community, and they need to see the bigger picture. Chores help them see that sometimes you have to do things that are not immediately gratifying in order to make the space a better place to live or to help out others who need the help.

Kids often don't understand the amount of work that goes into taking care of a household. Chores help them begin to see how everyone in a household has to contribute in order to keep up the household and keep it functioning. Chores also teach kids to help others and to contribute to society at large, not solely to their own happiness and gratification.

Barriers to Chores

To me, chores for kids is a no-brainer. But of course, if doing chores was easy, it wouldn't be such a stress in so many households.

There are many barriers that can get in the way of giving kids chores and holding them accountable. They are all real and understandable concerns. However, as parents we have to find a way around these barriers so that kids develop these important life skills and character traits.

"I Don't Want To Burden My Children"

One barrier is the parent who wants to give his kids the "gift" of a chore-free childhood so they can just play and enjoy themselves the whole time.

I'm a major fan of unstructured play for kids, so I hear this argument. Unstructured play is how kids learn best for a long time. Our kids today have far too many activities and need more time just for playing.

But giving kids the gift of lots of play time doesn't have to mean that they can't have chore time too. It doesn't harm a child to do a reasonable amount of chores; on the contrary, it strengthens them.

Of course, children should not be slaves, either. You do have to find a sensible balance, but keeping the child from having enough chores is really not doing them a favor.

"My Kids Are Too Busy"

On the opposite side of the spectrum are the children who are so overscheduled that they "don't have time" to do chores. These are stressed-out kids who need down time, so parents regularly excuse them from having to do any chores.

In this situation, parents need to re-think their children's schedules. Kids' activities are important character-builders, but too much is just as harmful as too little. Chores and unstructured free play time are vital for mental and emotional health. If your kids are "too busy" for chores, then it's time to find more balance in your home life.

Remember, the rhythm and structure of regular chores actually helps calm stressed-out kids and provides them a release from their busy schedule. It provides a transition time from a frenetic schedule to the down time they need so much.

"I Want Them To Focus on their Studies"

Some parents justify not giving chores because they view the child's main job as studying for college.

It is important for kids to do well in school and build their academic skills, whatever their future career path. But the personal growth skills they build from having chores helps in that process. These skills do not exist in a vacuum; building accountability, responsibility, and learning how to do hard things will only help them in their academics.

Parents can find a way to help kids learn how to schedule their time so they can manage academics, activities, chores, and playtime. Sometimes, flexibility will be needed, of course. During particularly busy times, you may need to negotiate a compromise. But too much focus on academics or activities at the expense of other things is harmful too.

"I Can Do It Faster and Better"

Probably the biggest barrier is that sometimes it's just easier to do the chore yourself! You are better at doing the chore, you are going to do a more thorough job, and you can usually get it done in half the time. Plus then you don't have to listen to them whining about having to do it, which seems to be universal for kids these days.

But again, you are not doing the child any favors by doing it for them. You have to be willing to let them fail at the chore, to slowly learn how to get better at the chore, and to learn how to do it more efficiently. THAT'S how they learn the accountability and responsibility and independence.

It doesn't just happen magically; it's a process. And you have to let go of control enough for them to work through that process on their own, even if that means the chore is done less than perfectly at times. For some parents, that letting go of control is the most difficult thing of all, but it's important that we do.

Parents Who Do Too Much

Another barrier is the parent who feels that he or she has to do it all for the kids. Women are particularly prone to this trap because many of us were taught that housecleaning is the woman's main responsibility and having a spotless house is part of being a "good mother," but men can be martyr parents too.

Parents are not meant to be slaves, doing everything for children. We do our children no favors if we do too much for them. It infantilizes them and keeps them dependent.

When children grow up seeing others taking care of all their needs, they begin to feel entitled to it. They grow up expecting others to take care of them, rather than taking care of themselves. They grow up dependent on others, instead of becoming independent and learning to do for themselves. This can transfer to dependency in their adult life as well.

Give your children the gift of independence and self-sufficiency. Let them learn to take care of themselves and others, not just be taken care of.

Gender-Related Chores

Another barrier to independence is gender-related chores. Even today, many girls are expected to do far more housework than boys are. Even when boys are given cooking or cleaning chores, they may not be held to the same standard of quality as women. Conversely, boys are expected to do far more yardwork than girls and girls aren't expected to know how to fix things or handle tools.

This is harmful in many ways. Boys learn the lesson that women are "supposed" to take care of them. This makes them dependent on women and incompetent to take care of themselves. Girls learn that they "need" boys to take care of the house and yard, and grow up feeling helpless around tools and mechanical/physical work.

Both genders should be doing all types of chores. Our boys need to learn to cook, clean, and care for others, and our girls need to learn to care for the maintenance needs of the house and yard. If it's a life skill that might be needed someday, both genders should learn it.

Sometimes, it makes sense in some households to divide chores along traditional responsibilities for a while. That's up to you. But take the long view; kids should learn all types of chores so they know how to do them all. Teaching them only half the chores handicaps them in the long run; someday they may be forced by circumstances to do the jobs they never learned.

The Messy House Conundrum

Sometimes kids don't follow through on chores and it can leave you with a messy house. And then people coming by judge you for your messy house, or the incomplete chore impedes the smooth running of your house.

The conundrum is, when kids don't do their chore, do you do it for them? Many parents do because it's just easier. But what is this teaching the kids? They are not learning to be accountable for their chore. It's better to leave the chore undone until the child can be held accountable and complete the task.

Of course, there are nuances here. Some chores (like taking care of animals) can't be put off because lives are depending on it. Some chores just have to get done in order for the household to function. And sometimes kids get super busy and you need to help out with chores for a while as a compromise.

There's going to be times when you help out, but it shouldn't be a regular thing. Otherwise, the child is really not being held truly accountable, and that's one of the main underlying reasons for chores.

Final Thoughts

Of course, theory is always easier than putting something into practice. Our family struggles with chores, like every other family. My kids do more chores than most of their peers, but they do far less than a lot of kids who grow up on ranches or farms. Finding that combination of enough-but-not-too-much is tough and takes some experimentation.

Most parents would agree that children need to do some chores. However, trying to figure out how much, what chores, at what age, and how to hold them accountable is a difficult job. Every family will come up with different answers.

When considering chores for your own household, think about the following things:
  • What chores need to be completed around the house
  • Which chores are most meaningful for the smooth running of the household
  • What are the ages and capabilities of your children
  • What life skills do you want your children to learn and by what age
  • What is a realistic chore load for them and for you
Start them young. Young children can do more than you'd think, and they love to help at first. Start by having them help clean up their toys. Give clean-up time a regular routine; all toys picked up as part of getting ready for bedtime, or helping clean the kitchen immediately after dinner. Sing a particular song or make a game of it to make it more motivating. The key is having as regular a structure as possible.

As they get a little older, children can help with other tasks like sorting laundry, setting the table, taking dirty dishes to the sink, wiping down the table, etc. In the later grade-school years, they can start doing harder chores, like vacuuming, sweeping, dishes, recycling, taking out the trash and compost, etc.

By the time they are in middle school, kids can do their own laundry and some house and yard maintenance (raking leaves, mowing the lawn, gardening, weeding, composting, etc.). By high school, they should know how to cook a number of basic dishes and practice that by fixing dinner for the family on a regular basis. They should also help out with maintenance chores like deep cleaning, changing furnace filters, maintaining the family car, winterizing the house, etc.

Most people think that high school is when the chores should really kick in, but honestly, our experience is that high school is when it gets most challenging. Once they get really busy with their studies and activities, it's far too easy to step in and do chores for them. Yet as they grow closer to being on their own, it's more important than ever for them to learn life skills and how to manage their time to complete all their obligations. So instead of chores getting easier with age, you may find that you have to be even more strict about chore expectations. 

However, I'm not a fan of tying allowances to chores. Kids should help around the house and yard because they are part of the family unit that lives there, not because they need to be motivated by money. You shouldn't have to bribe your kids to do chores. On the other hand, it's okay for kids to have the opportunity to earn extra money if they volunteer for special projects or extra-big chores.

Flexibility is key. There's no one-size-fits-all chore list that works for each family. Each chore list has to be adapted to your own particular situation and needs.

The point is to make sure that children have regular chores that they are responsible for, and to hold them accountable for doing those chores. 

All too soon your children will be adults and out on their own. Will you have taught them the majority of what they need to know to live on their own? Will they be responsible community members who help out others? Will they know how to be accountable for their work? Or will they expect others to always take care of them and not know how to care for themselves?

Chores are a VITAL part of parenting. Make sure that you are holding your children responsible for helping out around the house. It's one of the harder parenting tasks, honestly, but it's one of the most important ones. 


Cassandra said...

I'm wondering if the statistics are skewed by semantics. I don't require my kids to do chores just as I was never required to do them either. And yet by middle school I was basically taking care of myself and doing a number of whole house chores, without anyone asking or commanding it of me. I realize some kids need firmer guidance, but if I had been forced to do chores growing up, I would have avoided doing them at all costs. While I was asked to do them, I wasn't punished for not doing them and was allowed to find satisfaction in helping out on my own terms. It's the lovely middle ground between authoritarian and permissive.

Anonymous said...


Robin said...

Thank you so much for this post; I couldn't have said it better myself! My children are now all grown, but they knew the basics of adult living because they were taught them at home. I knew I was on the right track when I told my then eight year old son I was going to teach him how to clean the toilet and he looked at me astonished and asked "why?". "Someday you will leave home and need to know how to do it." "But my wife will do it for me." was his reply. And no, his father did not help out, but I was determined that a future partner of his would not be burdened by a slacker. And equally his sisters had to take turns mowing the lawn.

My own mother belonged to the school of "I can do it better and faster myself" and she didn't do me any favours when I had to learn everything as a new wife. Children are competent, let them prove it.