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Raising a Responsible Child

Duty to Family

Kids need to learn that for the household to run smoothly, every member is obligated to pitch in. That's why Elise Vari of San Diego gave her two kids their first official chores  -- helping with laundry (sorting lights from darks) and emptying the dishwasher (initially putting away spoons and forks, then graduating to cups and plates)—when each turned 3. Today Kylie, 4, and Cameron, 7, have assigned chores throughout the house. "Sometimes Cameron steps in to help Kylie finish her jobs, especially when he wants to go out and play with her," says Vari.

Despite such success stories, some parents feel uncomfortable making preschoolers help out around the house, concerned that they'll be robbing their kids of time to just be kids ("they're only small once; they'll have their whole lives to work") or hesitant about slowing down enough to include small children in the rush of housekeeping. But children should have the chance to feel important to the family, says Ellis. "Needing to be needed isn't just an adult thing—it's human nature."

Even an 18-month-old will love it if you ask her to help you lift something that's a little heavy or to fold a tablecloth. Two-year-olds can take on independent tasks with supervision, such as placing a napkin at everyone's plate on the dinner table. Three-year-olds can bring dirty dishes to the kitchen, scoop pet food into a bowl, and wipe up spills. Four-year-olds can water houseplants, empty wastebaskets, sort laundry by colors, and help put away groceries. (Just remember: They may not stay focused longer than 10 to 15 minutes, and each new task requires patient, step-by-step instruction.)

By age 5, children can make significant contributions to running the household. They can sweep with a small broom, fold and put away clothes, or work outside in the yard or the garden. But parents shouldn't expect more than about 20 minutes of sustained attention from kindergartners; note that reminders about specific chores may be needed from day to day. Visual cues like checklists and star charts are good ways to keep them on track.