Smiling mom helper cleaning the roomThere is a video making the rounds on social media on the topic of children doing chores from an early age. Some appeared to be as young as three or four and as old as pre-teen, and were setting the table, taking clothes out of the dryer and washing dishes in soapy water. It became controversial when some responded that it was unfair for children to be ‘slaves’ to their parents who didn’t want to do the work themselves. Most the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

In an article that appeared in the online version of Parents’ Magazine, journalist Beth Howard touts the benefits of providing youngsters the opportunity to learn basic ‘clean up after yourself’ skills. Much of what she shares falls into a family bonding experience and one that teaches children that everyone’s effort matters.

Per Marty Rossman, MD, author of The Worry Solution, “The best predictor of young adults’ success in their mid-20’s was that they participated in household tasks when they were three or four.”

Coming Clean About Cleaning Up

When Amanda was growing up, her parents modeled shared responsibility at home. Her father worked full time outside the home and her mother had part time jobs that enabled her to be there when her daughters came home from school. She then took a full -time job when they were old enough to be more independent ‘latchkey kids’. She and her sister were expected to make their beds, clean their rooms, set and clear the table, dust the furniture, clean up their toys, and put their laundry in the hamper which they carried to the laundry room, singing a silly song that their father taught them.  Initially, her parents showed them how to do them, and then as their abilities improved, they stepped back without supervision.

These chores were gradually added as they matured. Some of her treasured memories involved matching up socks that her mother had dumped onto the dining room table and mixing cookie batter at the kitchen table and putting the dough into the cookie press… and of course, licking the spoon afterward.  She enjoyed polishing the furniture and watching the dust disappear, leaving a surface that she could smile into. With her father, she would clean the garage, assist in the garden and vacuum (which he called “mowing the carpet”). It had a Mary Poppins feel to it, as an “element of fun” was added to these otherwise tedious tasks. What she also appreciates now, is that her father didn’t “help around the house,” as was considered the norm for men of his generation, but rather, he took equal accountability for the upkeep of their home.

When Jane became a single parent to her 11-year son after she was widowed at 40, she attempted to instill in him, the same organizational and cleanliness standards that she had, to keep her life in order during the whirlwind of change and trauma. This, she discovered was a herculean task. Throughout his adolescence, he would complain, “I don’t know why I even clean my room. It just gets messy again.” She reminded him that it didn’t get that way on its own.

She added her perception that the way someone treats their environment reflects how they feel about themselves and that a more organized space could allow him to think more clearly. She admits that she is not white glove clean, but when she adhered to the house rules she printed out and posted on a kitchen cabinet, her life became more manageable.

  1. If you open it, close it.
  2. If you take it out, put it away.
  3. If you drop it, pick it up.
  4. If you make a mess, clean it up.
  5. If you break it, let me know and either fix it or replace it.

They would also battle it out over dishes left in the living room, dining room on the kitchen counter or in the sink, and shoes, jacket and clothes dropped on the floor. She reminded him that his room was on the way to those places and encouraged him to take anything out of any room that he had brought in once he left the space. She demonstrated for him that taking a dish from the sink or counter and putting it in the dishwasher took less than 30 seconds to accomplish. It wasn’t until he was an adult, living with his fiancée’ that he more fully applied those rules. Jane was relieved, as she had told him many years earlier, that she was teaching him these skills, “for the benefit of my potential future daughter in-law.” She was gratified that it came to pass.

What Are the Benefits of Chores for Children?

  • A sense of accomplishment
  • Personal responsibility
  • Learning necessary life skills
  • Enhanced sense of self worth
  • Order and organization
  • Feeling like part of the family and by extension, a team
  • Knowing where to find things they need, so they aren’t scrambling for clean clothes or their shoes when it is time to go to school
  • Learning to live in cooperation with others such as roommates or relationship partners

How Can Parents Respond to Children Who Resist Completing Chores?

  • Model the behavior you seek from them. “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t instill a sense of cooperation.
  • Teach them at the level they will understand. A two -year old may be able to pick up toys and with an adult and put them in the toy box or on a shelf. A six- year old can bring their dishes to the sink and do some basic pet care, such as feeding the dog or cat.
  • Make up songs that create a sense of fun. “This is the way we clean our room, clean our room, clean our room. This is the way we clean our room, before we go to bed.” (to the tune of, “This is the way we wash our face.”)
  • Practice, not perfection. If a child feels that what they are doing is not good enough, they may not even attempt. Do your best not to hover or micro-manage.
  • Have a sweep through the house before bed, putting things in their place and remind the children that when they get up the next morning, they will be calmer and prepared for the day.
  • Praise their cooperation with feedback such as, “I appreciate that you put your coat in your closet instead of on the floor.” It might seem counter-intuitive to bring up behaviors that you don’t want, and it is helpful for them to see the difference between the two actions.
  • Ask them how they feel when there is “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
  • Although the temptation is to respond in anger, if they consistently leave messes, do your best to remain calm.
  • Put belongings in time out, rather than throwing things away or threatening to do so. Remember that you or someone else paid good money for these items. It makes sense since if there are fewer toys out at one time, there are fewer to put away.
  • What sometimes works is the statement that if the child has the energy to make the mess, they can come up with the energy to clean it up.
  • Use humor, such as “It’s the maid’s day off,” or “Your clothes aren’t going to walk to the washer.”
  • Remind him or her that toys can get broken or someone can get hurt it they get stepped on tripped over.
  • Model empathy. Ask them how they might feel if someone came into their house and made a big mess that they were expected to clean up. This may assist them in putting themselves in your place.
  • The question of allowance arises in these conversations. Some parents believe that money is to earned by doing chores, in the same way they will earn income when in the working world, while others feel it is an entitlement that teaches them about budgeting money.

Check out a resource guide for age appropriate lists of chores and the benefits involved.