Not long ago, I heard a radio story talking about how children in many South American cultures are active, engaged, and eager participants in family housework. Of course it made me think of all the times I’ve tried to get my kids to clean their room, clear the table, or help weed the garden and the many arguments, punishments, and tears that followed.
Talking to my parent friends, this struggle isn’t unique to my family. So many of us, overwhelmed by never-ending housework, need strategies to get the little ones to participate without the added stress of a fight every time we ask. Some days it seems easier to do the work ourselves than to convince the kids to help.
While we may never teach our children to love doing the dishes, there are strategies psychologists and parenting experts recommend to help them understand the importance of building habits that will stay with them their whole lives.
The importance of chores in childhood development
Doing chores and learning to be an active part of the household teaches children a number of critical lessons in their development.
The first and most obvious is practical. Eventually, kids grow up and will live on their own; they’ll need to cook and clean for themselves. As parents, one of our primary responsibilities is to make sure that when our offspring leave the nest, they can survive on their own. The best way for them to learn basic life skills is by letting them practice as children through chores. “You can’t send a housekeeper to college with them,” says Nicole Beurkens, a licensed child psychologist.
More than practical skills, however, chores also “teach children how to be a member of a family community,” says Ann McKitrick, an early childhood specialist and parenting coach. “Everyone needs to participate in making things work.” Cooperation and shared responsibility will be important in many of their relationships as they grow up, and the more they can internalize those lessons while they’re young, the better.
[Related: How to help your kids get over picky eating]
Beurkens agrees. “Chores build a more altruistic feeling in kids and teach them to support other people and the family as a whole,” she explains.
Chores also teach them to tolerate frustration, says Michael Ceely, a licensed family therapist. Life is full of responsibilities that we don’t enjoy. Kids who never have to do chores don’t get used to those unpleasant, challenging, or unfamiliar activities. Making chores a part of everyday life establishes the mindset that children have to push through, even when they’re not having a ton of fun.
When to give your kids responsibilities
The best time to have children start helping around the house is when they’re toddlers. Little ones love to help you with whatever you’re doing; they’ll think it’s a game and a learning experience. One study in Developmental Psychology found that kids as young as 20 months are intrinsically motivated to help their parents without any kind of extrinsic reward. By starting young, your children can build a lifetime habit of participating in the housework.
There are of course challenges to putting toddlers to task. The hardest for many parents, including me, to overcome is that young kids are simply bad at getting things done. It takes them longer, they need to be supervised, and chances are they’re going to make some mistakes that need to be fixed later. When my five-year-olds “help” me with laundry, it takes longer than if I’d just done it myself.
Even if it’s less efficient, Beurkens suggests that parents allow toddlers to pitch in on chores. Many 18-month-olds are capable of carrying their plastic cups and plates to the dishwasher, wiping down the counter with a wet rag, or handing you utensils while you’re cooking. These are all simple, safe tasks that kids can do almost as soon as they can stand.
What’s more, it doesn’t really matter if they do small tasks imperfectly. You can always fix their plate in the dishwasher or wipe down the spots they missed later. What matters is getting them involved. “When you start kids young, it becomes a fun thing working with Mom and Dad,” Ceely says. “They develop this sense of agency and contribution.”
Tips to get your children involved in chores
If your kids have passed the toddler stage, it’s still not too late to get them involved in housework.
One of the most important ways to approach this is to give your kids a step-by-step breakdown of the work you’re expecting. Telling them to “go clean their room,” for example, can be an overwhelming and seemingly impossible task. “Don’t expect more than they’re able to do,” McKitrick says. Communicate your expectations clearly, and gradually up the responsibility as they get used to the chore. The first few times, work together to complete the task, talking through each instruction and why you do it the way you do. After your kid becomes more comfortable, start the chore with them and then leave to do something else while they work on it. Come back back at the end to finish together. Once they understand the rules and can complete the task successfully, you can try to have them do it on their own.
Ceely also recommends having a dedicated “family chores day” when everyone in the household works on age-appropriate tasks at the same time. This creates a sense of teamwork and an understanding that doing work is simply part of being a family. Even if one of your kids is resistant, eventually the peer pressure might convince them to participate.
Setting clear expectations around how long different tasks will take can also help. Children, particularly younger ones, don’t have a great sense of how long duties will take. When I tell my five-year-olds that we need to clean their room, they tearfully object that “it will take forever” and they’ll “never get to play again.” Twenty minutes feels like an eternity to them. Beurkens says that talking explicitly about time and using timers can hold huge value for children.
Positivity is also critical to keeping your family motivated. So often as parents, we focus on what the kids missed or did wrong. That negative feedback discourages them. Rather than harping on them for putting the plates in the dishwasher backwards, focus on how they loaded all the plates in the tray. When you’re building a practice of doing chores, effort counts more than execution. There will be plenty of time to modify their techniques as they get older.
Room for personal growth
We all have a vision for the right way to do each chore. But that doesn’t mean our way is the best way, or the way that our kids’ will wind up doing the same task. As you teach your children, adapt your expectations to incorporate their needs and preferences.
Finally, don’t take your kids’ behavior personally. Set boundaries and establish rules—but don’t expect zero pushback. Our job isn’t to get the young ones to like doing the dishes; it’s to get them to do the work. “Let your kids own their negative feelings about not liking chores,” Beurkens says. After all, you probably don’t like the drudgery either. Communicate your shared frustrations to help them to see that sometimes we all do things we don’t enjoy.
And when it comes to which chores to really focus your efforts on, McItrick says to pick your battles. List out your non-negotiable items and pinpoint where you can be more flexible. In my case, a room is only clean when every single toy is broken down, picked up, and put away in its proper basket. For my kids, though, the idea of taking apart their latest LEGO creation is unthinkable. So we compromise. Every few weeks, we have to do a full cleanup by my standards. But in between, all we need is to make sure there’s a safe path from the entrance to their beds.
After all, McItrick says, if I get sick of looking at the mess, I can always close the door behind me.