Involving Children in Chores at Any Age

A good 7 years before I even had my first child, I was curious about how to raise children as contributing members of the household. I know this, because when preparing for an interview with Nessle Expert and Parent Coach Dollnita Winston, I found a newspaper clipping from a 2009 print edition of the Chicago Tribune that traced age-appropriate life skills and household expectations for children. Age 2: start learning to sort clothes. Age 5: set the table. Age 15: change a tire.

Clearly I had such good intentions, and yet, as with so many of the expectations I had for parenting before actually having children, I underestimated the mental bandwidth it would take to start enacting a comprehensive plan like this–and underestimated the finesse and patience it would require to get cooperation from the other parties involved.

This is where Parent Coach Dollnita Winston steps in for families. In our latest podcast episode, she walks listeners through the importance of involving children in chores from an early age, and helps families think about when to do chores, how to introduce chores as a concept, what chores are appropriate at certain ages, and shares her top 3 secrets to get children to pitch in more around the house. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

Involving Children in Chores is Important on Many Levels

When children contribute around the home, they are learning basic life skills, like responsibility, accountability, time management, and organization. Not only are they making life easier (eventually anyway) for you by pitching in, but they are also intuiting throughout their involvement the sense that the family is a team where everyone belongs and contributes. It also helps children practice an important life lesson: sometimes you have to break away from what you want to do, and turn to what you are asked to do.

It’s Easiest to Start a “Chore” Routine Early, but it’s Possible to Start at Any Age

In the Montessori method of raising children, families involve little ones in housework as early as possible, with “practical life” exercises like watering plants, folding towels, cleaning up a spill, and more. Even if your child doesn’t attend a Montessori-style daycare, you can adopt this style in your own home. Your children are naturally interested in what you’re doing, even as toddlers, and they want to help. Although you may think it’s more efficient to clean up the spill yourself, or to sort laundry on your own, taking advantage of your toddler’s interest and eagerness to get involved will pay dividends in the long-run.

And yet, if your children are older and do not yet have the practice of helping around the house, it’s never too late to get them involved. Dollnita recommends introducing the topic at a family meeting–not a stern, you’re-at-the-principal’s-office type of meeting, but a fun family meeting where the parents listen for everyone’s point of view of the subject and get the children to contribute their own ideas about how the family should tackle this together. Dollnita adds that an allowance can be a great incentive, and is more effective than penalties for not performing chores, though natural consequences (like not being able to wear a favorite dress to school, because it was never put in the laundry basket) can help children understand the significance of housework.

Dollnita also recommends ways to encourage kids’ involvement by making housework fun. For example, use bright, colorful bins for storage, play their favorite songs in the background during “chore time,” and even consider offering a surprise coupon at the completion of a task, for example, an extra story at bedtime for a job well done putting books away.

It’s Getting Harder and Harder to Let Go, but Kids Need Responsibility

Alongside that Chicago Tribune chore list, another resource I collected with all of those pre-children good intentions years ago was How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims. In this book, Lythcott-Haims, who interacted regularly with young adults for her role as a dean and undergraduate advisor at Stanford, discusses the rise of “helicopter” or “snowplow” parenting, where parents are overly involved in laying the tracks for their children to have a comfortable, easy, high-achieving life, often sacrificing their ability to grow in independence.

As that book–and Dollnita Winston–explained, we too often underestimate what our children are capable of, and our children, in turn, absorb and reproduce those lowered expectations. On top of that, there are so many distractions and pressures placed upon children these days through social media and the drive to achieve in school and extracurriculars. Parents step in, taking over additional responsibilities and treating children with more leniency when it comes to helping around the house. Parents who operate this way have all the best intentions, but Lythcott-Haims’s research shows that it’s actually a disservice, stunting kids’ developing maturity levels.

The safest place for a kid is in a five-foot tree and all that. And yet, now that I’m actually a parent, I know that it’s damn hard to feel chill about your child being five feet up in the branches of a tree. You imagine the broken arm, the trip to the ER when you have that important meeting looming this afternoon, the kid’s frustration over being out for the softball season... But up in the tree is where we know they need to be. Thank goodness for experts like Dollnita Winston who help coach us through how to handle our own emotions as we watch them climb.

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