By just about every measure, parents today are more hands-on and more diligent about loading their kids up with all kinds of activities than those of previous generations. Parents spend more time taking care of their children every day. They spend more time shuttling them to extracurriculars. They’re more hands-on with homework.
But there’s one area where modern parents expect less of their children than previous generations: chores. About 80% of people actively parenting young kids say they had chores growing up, but only 30% actually make their children do them, according to a poll from Braun Research, a market research firm.
Yet giving kids simple responsibilities around the home is a surprisingly powerful way to foster self-reliance and responsibility. (Not to mention that it gives parents a much-needed break.) Here’s why chores are so important — and some strategies for staying on track.
Chores teach essential life skills.
At the most basic level, chores are important because they are how kids learn to take care of themselves and do basic things like clean, cook and monitor the space around them.
“It’s really important to teach kids life skills!” Bethany Cook, a psychologist and author of “For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0-2,” told HuffPost.
Don’t expect your children to learn through osmosis. Sometimes “parents tell kids to do certain chores without ever showing them how,” Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “13 Things Strong Kids Do: Think Big, Feel Good, Act Brave,” told HuffPost.
So know that it’s going to take some time for you to deliberately teach your child these basic skills, but eventually, it will save you time and prepare them for adulthood, Morin added.
Chores help kids feel connected to the family.
When assigning chores, make sure you’re not just giving your child tasks that benefit them.
“Part of the power of chores is teaching your child the importance of helping others,” psychologist Stephanie O’Leary explained in a 2016 blog post on the secret power of chores. “If chores include tasks that only benefit your child, such as making their bed or cleaning their room, this lesson is lost.”
“Chores help kids understand: We’re a team in this household,” echoed Cook. “We all have to chip in.”
Some of the chores you give your child every day might have to do with taking care of themselves and their own messes (like putting their clothes away, making beds, etc.). But also think about tasks they can do that help the family as a whole, like setting and clearing the table, sweeping the kitchen, cleaning a common space, feeding a pet, etc.
Competence = confidence
Giving kids small jobs around the house is a really important way of raising them to be self-confident, particularly when they really feel like their contribution is valued by their family. Studies do show that when children are praised for their effort, not just the outcome, they tend to achieve more and be more persistent.
So notice and praise your child’s effort. Also, resist the temptation to make sure your child’s chore is completed perfectly (unless it’s absolutely necessary to). Intervening too much undermines the sense of competence and self-reliance that chores help foster.
“Chores help kids understand: We’re a team in this household. We all have to chip in.”
– Bethany Cook, psychologist and author
So, how to do it? If possible, start young.
Chores appear to be particularly beneficial when kids and families start young. In one small longitudinal study, researchers tracked a group of 84 kids from their preschool years through their mid-20s. They found the best predictor of young adults’ success in their mid-20s (as measured by things like education, healthy relationships with family and friends, and whether or not they used drugs) was participating in household tasks when they were 3 or 4 years old. On the flip side, kids who didn’t start helping out around the house until they were teenagers were generally less successful as young adults.
Of course, it’s important not to draw too many conclusions from one small study, but the research suggests that young kids embrace being given responsibility — again, because it helps them develop a sense of competence and confidence. But be realistic. “Toddlers are going to need you to be right next to them when they pick up their toys at first,” said Morin. “Preschoolers will be told what to do and they will respond well to praise when they’re done.”
And if you’ve got an older kid who hasn’t consistently done chores, don’t fret. It’s never too late to start, particularly if you’re really open with them about why you’re making the change and what your new expectations are.
“Sit down and chat about what they’re doing, why you think chores are important, and offer some control over what chores they have,” Cook said.
Experts also recommend linking a new chore with a future behavior — so, say, telling a tween or teen that they’re learning how to help with dinner so they can make meals when they go to college, or when they’re cooking for a boyfriend or girlfriend down the road.
Have some strategies for sticking with it — when you (and they!) want to give in.
Both Morin and Cook agree that one of the worst things parents can do when it comes to keeping kids on track with chores is to nag. First, consider whether you’re giving your child chores they just absolutely hate. Instead, give them some options.
Also, ask yourself whether you’re expecting too much of them — which can often lead to nagging. A 4-year-old might not make their bed in exactly the way you’d like, for example, but what matters is that they’re trying. As they get older, you can be more specific about how you’d like things done.
Reward kids when they do their chores, whether by giving them an extra five minutes of screen time or simply by taking the time to really notice their effort. Allowance can be controversial (Cook, for example, is generally anti-allowance for basic chores but OK with it for tasks that go above and beyond; Morin said a small allowance can really help motivate some kids), but what matters is that you think about what kind of rewards you’re comfortable with ahead of time, rather than just blurting things out at the moment. Then be consistent.
“Don’t nag or lecture kids about their choices,” Morin said. “Instead, follow through with those positive or negative consequences.”
And then be realistic. Kids will need to be reminded. They’re not always going to be happy about it. Adults aren’t always all that thrilled about doing things around the house, either, and that’s OK.
“It’s about saying that we all are together as a family, and we have to work as a unit,” Cook said.