Amy Cummings, a teacher, got tired of doing the endless piles of laundry her kids generated, but she didn’t hire a housekeeper. She taught her 9-year-old son and 12 -year-old daughter to wash their own clothes, fold and put them away.
“I was running a full-service household because I like things nice, but I realized the kids were never going to learn how to do practical things that way,” Cummings says. "I had to change."
Why should moms and dads do all the work? Isn’t setting the table a kid’s job? It was when I was a kid. That, and a whole lot more, too. Of course, chores aren’t something you can expect your kids to want to do. But doing them teaches them how and makes family life a more shared experience.
Here are ways you can empower your kids and teach them invaluable life lessons and build confidence, too.
Stop Being a Pick-Up Artist
A natural place to start with household chores is teaching your kids to pick up after themselves. That means YOU have to stop doing it for them.
“Every time you pick up after everyone, you reinforce the behavior and condition them to keep cluttering,” says Josh Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. The kids learn that if they leave their stuff around, you’ll just bail them out, anyway, so why should they do it? Instead, say things like, “I’d like you to take your dirty dishes into the kitchen before going to bed so we don’t come down to a messy living room in the morning.” If dirty dishes are still there in the morning, let them pile up, even if several days’ worth amasses.
Consistency is key. Whatever you do, don’t touch the dishes, no matter how much they bother you. Then, just keep stating the rule, emphasizing that as a family, you all need to do your part to keep the house neat. When kids finally get the message (they will), reinforce that behavior with praise, as in, “Thank you for bringing your dirty dishes into the kitchen. I love how clean the living room is.” In time, picking up will become as much of a habit for them as expecting you to do it once was, Klapow says.
Focus on Outcome
Meanwhile, you can also encourage your kids by offering an incentive to clean up. For example, tell them that once they’ve picked up their toys, they can go to the playground. Or once they’ve cleaned the den after their slumber party, then you can all go shopping. Or once they’ve emptied the dishwasher, then they can go to their friend’s house. That’s not bribing. Rather, it makes them understand that completing chores makes other fun activities possible.
Keep it positive by focusing on how clean the playroom, or whatever room they’re tackling, will look when they’re done. Concentrate on public areas in your house, the common ground you all inhabit, where kids get the greatest sense that “we’re all in this together” and consider letting them do what they want with their bedroom. “Short of breeding MRSA (a staph bacteria), I think a child’s bedroom should be off limits to housekeeping rules,” says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist.
Assign tasks based on your child’s age
It’s never too early to enlist your child’s assistance. Even preschoolers can put napkins on the table, help match the socks, put their toys away and help you look for specific items at the supermarket from their perch in the shopping cart.
From preschool to the lower elementary grades, do the task with them until they’re old enough to do it themselves. Even a first grader isn’t likely to clean the living room solo. Emphasize, “We’re doing this together” without getting angry. Over the years, you can expect kids to do more without your support or reminding. Eventually, the process will become ingrained and your kids will tidy up automatically. Based on your child’s age and stage, tasks they can handle (from toddlers to teens) include: • putting toys away • placing clean clothes in dresser drawers • loading and emptying the dishwasher • taking out the garbage • setting the table • vacuuming and dusting • mowing the lawn • washing the car • doing the laundry • making dinner • doing household errands Rotate chores as much as possible, given your children’s ages so that no one gets stuck with the same job. One idea? Put all the chores that need to be done into a hat. Whatever gets drawn is your child’s job for the week.
If you’re always reminding your kids to do their chores, they’ll learn to depend on you for that cue. Instead, help them remember to do tasks without prodding by teaching them to evaluate their own work. “If you go into the bathroom and see the towels on the floor again, for example, instead of saying, ‘Pick up the towels,’ ask your child, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’”
And be sure to pile on the praise. But rather than, “You’re the greatest laundry folder in the world,” you might say, “Oh, wow! You’re doing such a great job folding all the laundry. I’m so proud of you for helping out.”
Kids love it when you recognize their contribution and honestly express gratitude; it’s a competence and confidence booster.