When should kids start doing chores? Should they be expected as part of a contributing member of the family, or paid like a job, or a combination of above? What chores are age appropriate, or perhaps more relevant, ability appropriate?
There’s no one right answer to any of the above and what is a good fit for you will depend on your family’s dynamics, time, expectations, lifestyle, house, and schedule.
I firmly believe that kids should do chores, and integrating chores into your life and theirs will make them more responsible human beings better able to function in life for the long term. You know, what we all, as parents, aspire to give our kids: life skills!
I work part time from home, and as a family we decided a long time ago that this was the best fit for us. Part of me being home includes primary responsibility for meals and big chores, and that’s okay. It has, however, been tricky to navigate the language we use and how we approach chores with the kids so that they don’t come to expect that I will pick up after them.
They weren’t getting it. A recent conversation went like this.
Me: Whose dishes are these in the sink?
Kid: Oh. They’re mine.
Me: Why didn’t you put them in the dishwasher?
Me: When you leave them here, what you’re saying to me is “Mom, it’s your job to clean up after me. It’s your job to deal with the dishes and the kitchen, and that’s too bad if you have to take extra time to clear the sink before you start to cook dinner. That’s your problem, not mine.”
Kid: That’s not what I meant!
Me: I know that’s not what you meant, but that’s the message I got when I had to take the time to clean up your mess first before I could use this space to cook our dinner. Next time you could check to see if the dishwasher was dirty, or if it’s clean and full you could stack your dishes on the counter and not in the sink. That way I know you tried to be considerate and weren’t leaving them for me. Even better? You could empty the dishwasher.
I remind them of this conversation from time to time. It seems to stick for a little while and then they forget again. We talk about intent versus impact – such an important concept across many subject areas!
Do I sometimes just cave and clean it up anyway? You betcha. Sometimes for my own sanity I just need the counter to be clean or the dishes to be away or what have you, and it’s so not worth the time it will take to drag the child into the situation and then supervise over the moaning and groaning. On the whole I try really hard not to do those things for anyone. I try to instil in my kids a sense of responsibility, and that as a contributing member of the family it’s their job to keep the communal areas cleaned up, and their own spaces livable. It is a fine balance though, for how you handle their own bedrooms. It’s the only space in the house that is theirs, so maybe you’re okay with them having complete control over the space, provided it’s not a biohazard. (Dad? An apology 30 years late for not getting why it drove you so bananas that my room was a pig sty. I’m sorry.)
So all that aside, what chores can be done by whom? This will depend on the ability of the kids, your time, your patience, and your lifestyle. My ten plus years of parenting has taught me that no two families function in the same way, so all I can share is what has worked for us. Your mileage may vary – tweak it until it suits you!
Philosophy of Chores
Big chores can always be scaled down for smaller people: scale it down in physical size (a small space instead of a big space) or in tools (choosing tools that fit little hands makes all the difference in everyone’s happiness). Asking my kids to “clean their rooms” usually results in a melt down and a lot of wailing. But if I break down the task into smaller bundles of things that they can see then everyone is happier: “put all the clothes away, put the stuffies in the bin, make sure your closet door can close, throw out all of the garbage and recycling littered on the floor.”
This does require more supervision on my part but like many things in life, learning to clean and tidy is a life skill that requires teaching and practice. They’ve really had to learn (ahem: are currently learning) to see the mess and what needs doing, and to focus on one thing at a time to avoid being overwhelmed by the whole thing.
Have Realistic Expectations
Set the bar at a reasonable height. Just as you should not expect a five year old to do the same quality of work as you, be wary of setting the bar too low! Five year olds can do a lot of things if given the chance and the confidence! Don’t be caught in thinking that age two is too young for chores. Two year olds can do lots of things if we approach it from their level.
Give them real jobs, not just role of “helper”
As a kid I desperately wanted to help my dad in his garage. All I remember being allowed to do was clean up. Not what I had in mind — rebuilding an engine maybe? — and I quickly lost interest. Now, my 7 and 10 year olds frequently battle over the helper-assistant dynamic versus teammates, and it’s something I’ve noticed affects jobs I ask them to do as well. Sometimes they want to be my helper, for the love of working one-on-one with me at a task. Sometimes they want to be in the same space as me but have the responsibility of their own task. Once in a while they want to work alone and I’ll pop in periodically to check in on them. Gauge what your child needs, but give them a real job they can be proud of at the end. Something with measurable results and that has actual value to the house, not just busy work. They’ll quickly figure out it’s a waste of their time.
Ask them to “fold the laundry” or “sweep the kitchen floor” because it’s a chore they’re expected to do as part of the family. When you say “fold the laundry for me” the message you’re communicating to them is that really the job or responsibility is yours (as mom or dad or caregiver) and please will the child do the work to help out mom or dad as a favour?
Instead make the message about contributing to the family. Do the job to help the family as a whole, not just the parent. Try something like: “it’s time to do a chore for our household. Would you like to do x, y, or z?” Maybe there is a two-person chore and the child could be a teammate for that job, but be careful how you word it to avoid unintentionally falling into this trap.
Does my 7 year old fold laundry as neatly as I do? No. But neither does my husband. Or maybe I’m a control freak about how my shirts are folded. Regardless, it helps no one to redo a kid’s work. They don’t feel that their time or effort matters and they’ll quickly stop bothering. Don’t undermine their efforts. Resist! Even better, make a big deal about their contribution, but not in a fake way. Praise them, but in terms of being grateful for their contribution to the family. Just like you probably appreciate it when your family thanks you for cooking dinner. Try things like “Thanks for loading the dishwasher. When we all work together it leaves us more time to do [insert fun family thing here.]”
Keep It Regular
Establish some sort of a routine, whether it’s a daily or weekly one, a chore chart, or even a time of day when everyone does a chore. We tend to come home after school and have a snack (before the hangry sets in) and then try to take ten minutes together to do a tidying blast. Often we’ll put some upbeat music on and make it fun while we scurry about picking up the detritus that accumulates. We also try to have everyone participate in the after dinner clean up (even if they aren’t directly cleaning up from supper) so that it’s a team effort to make a visual difference in the mess.
What about allowance for chores?
Our family’s approach is that allowance is for learning about money and financial literacy, and not directly tied to chores. Kids are expected to do chores as part of the family, and once in a while there might be an option to earn more money by doing a specific job or task. We do not want to have kids decide that nah, we aren’t going to do any chores today because we don’t need the money. That’s not the point. Our goal is to teach kids that contributing to the family is the expectation and no one gets paid for that, it’s just what happens and how we function.
Who can do which chores?
I Do – We Do – You Do – Mastery
A lot of chore charts or guides break down tasks by age. But, it’s really more about ability and your family’s needs, so this list below is broken down by task.
Aim for an “I Do – We Do – You Do – Mastery” spectrum, where you start by teaching about the task (I Do). Break down the steps, explain the process, show how it’s done. Exactly what this looks like will depend on the age and abilities of the child.
Move on to We Do, where — you guessed it — you do the thing together. Perhaps you could prod your child to explain what happens next or to instruct you on what to do when, but give them feedback and work together.
When they’re ready, proceed into You Do, where the child has sufficient skills and abilities on the subject so they can do it themselves. Check in with them, but don’t micromanage.
Mastery comes when you can ask your 10 year old to “put in a load of laundry” and she knows that means gather it, sort it (if that’s your thing), put it in the washer, correctly measure detergent, start the cycle, transfer to the dryer or drying rack, and then fold and sort. Even better? When she notices on her own that a load could go in…and does it!
Some of these tasks can be done by kids younger than two. Start them early, when it’s still fun!
- Fold dish cloths, tea towels, cloth diapers, or match socks (toddlers can do this!)
- Deliver laundry to everyone’s room
- Collect dirty laundry (especially if they can push a laundry basket along the floor)
- Sort laundry by family member, or by type of item
- Put their own laundry away
- Start a load of laundry
- Transfer laundry from washer to dryer or drying rack
- Sweep the floor. Find (or re-purpose) child-sized tools. Check out a dollar store for items that can be resized. If you don’t want to buy a toddler-sized broom then buy a dollar store one and cut the end off it (cover any sharp edges with duct tape).
- Sweep into a dustpan (this takes a surprising amount of dexterity)
- Dry mop
- Wet mop or steam mop
- Small spray bottles filled with dilute vinegar can be good for cleaning tiles…or really, just one tile. My kids loved this task so much that they did a really good job on one tile, over and over and over again!
- Wash windows (with a spray bottle and cloth, pick ones they can reach, set limits for how many sprays per window)
- Dust window sills or baseboards (microfibre cloths are great for this)
- Line up shoes
- Stack magazines or books
- Put toys away
- Make their bed by tidying duvet or comforter
- Tidy and arrange their bed with pillows or stuffies
- Strip their beds
- Remake bed with clean sheets
- General tidying and putting things away
- Empty the cutlery drawer from the dishwasher (remove sharp knives first until kids are ready to handle them independently)
- Fold and set napkins for dinner
- Set the table
- Clear the table
- Wipe the table or counter (teach them how…do this before sweeping)
- Food preparation
- Empty the dishwasher of things they can reach
- Load their own dishes in the dishwasher
- Load everyone’s dishes in the dishwasher
- Wash dishes (dish gloves and an appropriately sized stool are essential to ensure the water is hot enough, and water spillage is minimized)
- Put groceries away
- Organize the pantry or shelves
- Make simple snacks
- Assisted baking transitioning to independent baking
- Assisted meal preparation transitioning to Independent meal preparation
- Water outside plants (a small watering can with a spout is a good tool for this job)
- Pull weeds
- Plant bulbs, seeds, or seedlings
- Feed pets
- Groom pets
- Walk pets
- Rake or bag leaves
- Pick up pet waste
- Mow the lawn
- Shovel snow
- Change snow tires
Chores are a bit of a drag, but when everyone is involved it lightens the load and teaches valuable life skills. Hopefully one day you’ll thank your previous self for giving your kids these skills!