Lisa Goldman, a music teacher in Beachwood, Ohio, wouldn’t have it any other way. Her three kids — ages 8 through 14 — have been doing chores since they were toddlers. They’d help their mom in the garden and “fold” towels. Today, all three are responsible for clearing their room of clutter. “Doing chores is important,” Goldman says. “It teaches my kids to have a work ethic.”
Many experts agree that household jobs help children learn how to be contributing members of the family. They give kids a sense of accomplishment by making them feel needed. And there’s an added benefit to you. As Amparo Marks, a mom of two in Wayland, Massachusetts, says, “Everyone in our family has to pitch in unless they want a crazy Mommy and Daddy.”
You don’t need to load your child with a lengthy to-do list, though. Kids learn responsibility in a variety of ways, including discipline and watching you do your work. But here are some easy ideas to get your little ones to do their part:
Esther Davidowitz, a mom of three, is the editor-in-chief of Westchester Magazine.
Work Into Child’s Play
Cash in on their enthusiasm
Toddlers and preschoolers love to work around the house — it makes them feel grown up. So if your child wants to dust the furniture, hand her a little rag. She may only kick the dust around and add smudge marks of her own, but the point isn’t perfection. It’s to encourage and support her willingness to take on duties and to boost her feelings of competence. Just as important, she’ll get a kick out of doing something you do — and, of course, doing something with you.
No matter what it is your young assistant is hankering to do, he won’t be able to do it without your guidance. Break down simple tasks into baby steps. Unload the dishwasher together. At first, he can hand you the dishes to place in the cupboard; when he’s 5 or 6, he can start to put them away (at least the ones that are stored on the lower shelves).
Choose chores they’re ready for
Be careful not to give a child a responsibility she can’t handle, says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Raising a Thinking Child. She knew a 4-year-old boy whose job was to take out the garbage after dinner. One day, his mom found all the trash under his bed. When she asked him why he’d thrown it there, he told her, “I’m scared of the dark.” After that, he was on fish-feeding duty, a job he picked himself and liked better.
With your supervision, there are many ways even very young kids can pitch in, from putting toys into bins to taking dishes to the sink. And there isn’t a tiny sous-chef alive who doesn’t love to add cucumbers to the salad or splash away at the kitchen sink to clean the veggies.
You can make laundry fun too: Have your little helper sort all the white socks or match up pairs according to color or size.
Don’t Expect Miracles
Add on as they grow
When her son Cody was 2, Toby Spiegel of Irvine, California, would give him a paper plate and a plastic spoon and fork to carry to the table. Now 8, Cody’s “still setting the table every night, but he’s graduated to regular plates and silverware,” Spiegel says.
By age 5 or 6, kids can clear cups and dishes from the table and load silverware into the dishwasher. They can begin to put away their laundry and make their bed (just don’t expect hospital corners). By age 7 or 8, they can help you measure ingredients, wipe the table, bring in the newspaper, and sweep the floor. At 9 or 10, they should be able to fix sandwiches and pack their own school lunches, weed the garden, and vacuum their room.
Let them have a say
Children are more likely to want to contribute if they can choose the job, whatever their age or skill level. Your little one can pick which shelf to store her toys on or which cup to put on the table, for example. Just keep in mind that limiting her choices is better than being either too open-ended or overly controlling. The goal is to empower your child, says Shure. “Ask your two-year-old, ‘Do you want to pick up the dinosaurs or the blocks?'”
This strategy should continue as your child grows older. If your 7-year-old doesn’t want to put away the silverware, hold your tongue and find out if there’s something about the chore she dislikes. Then let her select a reasonable alternative. Maybe she’d rather wipe off the table, clean the kitchen counters, or empty the wastebaskets. Whatever she chooses, though, should be something that you agree to and doesn’t conflict with the house rules.
Don’t expect miracles
Teaching your child to take on tasks independently is a long process, one that requires patience and lots of gentle reminders. The key is to curb the (natural) tendency to nag (that’ll just produce resentment), and remember that kids really do want to pitch in. Work with your child, and your encouragement will teach him how to be really helpful.