Many parents are all too familiar with the eye rolls, groans or fake “OK mom/dad” when their kids are asked to do something. Especially when it interrupts their down time. In my house, everyone knows that until mom sits down, no one sits down. It’s really hard work to mobilize my kids to do what I expect from any member of a communal group.
Although you might doubt it, being a kid today can be daunting. Despite a plethora of electronic conveniences within a world of immediate gratification, they have to have their eyes on the future, both feet in the present and a hand on their smart phone. In all this, they know that they must exceed standards and standardized exams, pursue athletics or extracurricular positions, and gain college entrance or worthy employment to succeed in the competitive world.
With these expectations, it is not surprising that being accountable for household chores has fallen off the “to-do” list. Yet research shows how powerful these primary responsibilities have been and still are. Jennifer Wallace shares a study in which 82 percent of adults studied said they had regular chores growing up, yet only 25 percent of these adults required the same for their own kids. The irony of these parenting choices is that while it seems worthy to pursue things that we think bring success, we tend to omit what has already been proven successful — doing household chores.
Richard Rende, a developmental psychologist and co-author of the book “Raising Can-Do Kids,” says there is a lot of data showing how doing chores positively influence academic, emotional and professional success.
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Families today are busy. On average, mothers spend 21 hours a week doing paid work, 18 hours on housework and 14 hours doing childcare. Fathers spend 37 hours per week doing paid work, 10 hours on housework, and 7 hours doing childcare.
But what are the kids doing?
In her post, “Getting kids to help with housework,” Eileen Kennedy-Moore says research shows that most kids between 6 and 12 years of age spend an average of nearly 3 hours per week on housework an almost 14 hours per week watching television.
University of Minnesota professor emeritus Marty Rossman showed in a 2002 longitudinal study that the young adults who began appropriate chores at age 3-4 were more likely to have better relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success and to be self sufficient — as compared to peers who didn’t have chores or who started them as teens.
Today, we ask very little of our kids in terms of chores — or even courtesy. Why? Sometimes parents don’t involve children in chores because it takes too much effort to supervise them. If we do it ourselves, or pay someone else to do it, we know the jobs will get done right, and we won’t have to deal with arguments or delays. But long-term, what do kids learn from that?
The benefits of chores
Doing chores have many benefits:
▪ Chores help develop planning skills. Today’s kids don’t have a lot of time to waste. Adding chores into the mix forces kids to think about when and how they are going to complete tasks — kids get pretty good at this when they realize that efficiency in chores means more time to hang out with friends or just do their own thing at home.
▪ Giving kids chores at an early age helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance. No one likes to do chores, but chores themselves can be great learning opportunities. Whether it is running a laundry machine or lawn mower, figuring out why the vacuum cleaner doesn’t have suction or how to put a button back on a pair of shorts, chores expose kids to a variety of practical and mechanical systems.
▪ Chores help reinforce the importance of completing a task. Having chores can teach the importance of completing an assigned job. This will become more useful as your child gets older and has more responsibilities at school and at home. Housework may not be glamorous, but it’s necessary, and knowing how to do it efficiently and effectively is a life skill.
▪ Chores demonstrate the principle of completed task =compensation. Kids who do chores on a regular basis quickly learn that work is necessary for earning. The understanding that most things in life are not provided for free is a powerful motivator to budget well and to avoid taking things for granted. Kids learn how a real employer might determine compensation and/or disciplinary action if tasks are not completed up to expectation. When your child finally hits the market, they’ll be well-prepared for corporate procedures. Kids might gripe and groan as they do what you want, but getting them to finish basic chores has a huge affect on their monetary future.
▪ Chores teach kids how to be empathetic and responsive to others’ needs. It has been documented in numerous studies that personal happiness comes most reliably from strong relationships. Madeline Levine, author of “Teach Your Children Well,” says that being slack about chores even when school work comes up gives your child the message that grades and achievement are more important than caring about others. “Small messages in the moment add up to big ones over time,” says Levine.
▪ Chores build self-esteem. Kids are proud when someone tells them important their work is. They become thankful for things they have and tend to be more grateful when people do things for them. Research shows that children actually feel happier when they make a meaningful contribution to the family. Many American teens reported higher levels of happiness when they provided more family assistance, and they did not find this work stressful.
▪ Chores instill family values. There is nothing wrong with asking kids to make a reasonable contribution to their family and their home. That’s what families do — they are a “team.”. The earlier you start asking them to take on some responsibility, the more readily they will do it. And it is important for the parent to follow through on their expectations. While it can often be easier to just do the household chores yourself, in the long-run it benefits them when they do it themselves.
Impact of chores on academics
Learning responsibility through chores can translate into better academic performance. Similar to when kids participate in jobs that help the family, they achieve accomplishment at school when they are charged with responsibilities and perform them well. Having a deep sense of responsibility helps kids become confident problem-solvers in every aspect of their lives.
So, how do you motivate children to do chores? Wallace suggests that you:
▪ Choose your words. Thanking a child for being a helper is more powerful than simply saying thank you for helping. An active descriptor is more motivating and can create a positive identity as someone who helps.
▪ Schedule chore time and follow up. Write chores into a schedule or calendar to maintain consistency. Spot check. Check in with your child to see how they’re doing and give some gentle reminders about tasks still undone.
▪ Start on a beginner level. Be absolutely clear about what you expect for each chore and do them together. Children cannot do what you ask if they don’t have a solid sense of their goals or objectives. Start small and have young kids earn new “levels” of responsibilities. Like going from sorting clothes to actually using the washing machine. Let older kids plan and cook dinner.
▪ Keep chores and allowance separate. Forget the stars, stickers and candy. There is a lot of research out there that shows that external rewards can actually lower motivation and performance. It can turn an act of altruism into a business proposition.
▪ The task matters. Chores should be routine and focused on taking care of the family. Let’s do our chores sends a much bigger message than go do your chores.
▪ Keep it manageable. Kids are more willing to repeat a short burst of tidying than a long marathon of cleaning.
▪ Promote the concept. Don’t let them hear you complaining about your chores. Keep chores and punishments separate. Keep the concept positive.
▪ Make it fun. Put on lively music. Let your children use cleaning tools they enjoy. If your attitude while doing the chores is light-hearted, your child will be more willing to participate.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.