It was 6:15 on a Tuesday night when I realized I had run out of onions. It was too late to dash to the store, so I texted a neighbor in the building for one. He messaged back that his teenage daughter was home and could give me one.
Later in the evening, after dinner prepared with said onion, her Dad disclosed that his highly-accomplished daughter had sent him a photo of their pantry and asked if the item in the basket was, indeed, an onion. “Parenting fail!” he joked.
It might have been easy to judge a 17 year old who didn’t know what an onion was, but the whole exchange gave me pause. While my own children were great eaters and could easily differentiate a red onion from a beet, my 13 year old still asked me for snacks. In addition, I was still making school lunches. No one was helping me prep dinner. And I routinely yelled about the laundry.
While I had been trying to enforce a smattering of chores, I had to wonder whether or not I was teaching my kids to take care of their material needs. The answer was a resounding no.
Chores have incredible benefits to kids.
Chores are widely regarded as a good thing. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), doing chores teaches children time management and organization skills. It also helps establish responsibility within the family structure. The Center For Parenting Education goes one step further and states, “Research indicates that those children who have a set of chores have higher-self esteem, are more responsible, and are better able to deal with frustration and delay gratification, all of which contribute to greater success in school.”
Now these are all compelling reasons to figure out how to get kids to do chores. Not to mention that it’s just helpful to us as parents.
The thing is, I was aware of the benefits of chores and genuinely think I was trying. But the list of tasks posted on the kitchen wall was dusty and stained from neglect. I found myself making their beds every morning, despite pleas to incorporate this simple activity into their day. My son ended up only being responsible for washing basic dinner dishes like plates and cutlery, while I cleaned pots and pans and put away leftovers.
Every morning, I would run to the door to deliver lunch to this highly capable 13 year old as he left for school. But why? Did I somehow think he couldn’t manage to pick it up? Even when we tried to stick to a routine, it seems like the execution of the tasks eventually dropped off. Either it felt like the children already had too much being asked of them, or it felt easier to complete a particular job myself. Therein lies the crux of the issue.
Without responsibilities, how will our kids grow up?
According to Dr. Deborah Gilboa, family physician and child development expert, parents who don’t give their children chores—or end up doing them because their kids are too busy—are robbing them of the opportunity to build character that will make the world easier to navigate. From Gilboa’s recent book, Get The Behavior You Want…Without Being the Parent You Hate, learning to contribute to the needs of the family as a child produces adults who are better employees, friends, and partners. This is because they are taught that they are not above serving the needs of their family, or any group.
Gilboa goes on to explain that when we don’t actually expect our children to follow through on their jobs for whatever reasons, we are conveying that we don’t think they are capable of doing more than the minimum. Or, even worse, we consider their contributions immaterial. Either way, having low expectations of our kids does little to bolster their sense of purpose and independence.
The byproduct of teaching children how to function within a group through the completion of household chores is that they actually end up learning how to meet their material needs and those of others. Eventually, our children will leave home and not knowing how to feed themselves and maintain a clean, pleasant environment is a costly and grim prospect. So whether you haven’t started at all or your efforts have been less than stellar, here are a few strategies to encourage self sufficiency in our children.
Make chores consistent and more meaningful.
First, and perhaps most importantly, if you want to know how to get kids to do chores, rethink calling them chores. Parenting expert Amy McCready says, “The word ‘chore’ conjures up images of Cinderella scrubbing the castle floors.” Those images are antithetical to a family unit working towards the same goal of making a home run more smoothly. For our Let Grow chore chart, which you can get for free, we focused on responsibility.
Next, assign appropriate tasks that won’t cause frustration or discouragement. This could be by age or skill level—you know your child best. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that kids 12 and older should be able to execute most household tasks.For many parents, this means they can probably give their kids a lot more credit and a more advanced to-do list.
The next thing to think about is consistency. I’ll admit that this has been the missing element in my household. But when you can implement it, it’s definitely a game changer. Spending all weekend forcing everyone to pick up a vacuum and toilet brush can be brutal. Whereas daily participation feels much more like a routine. For instance, every day you can have chores like make the bed, put away clothes, help prepare meals, clean the kitchen, and clean up after yourself. Each job makes an impact in sharing the load.
Another pro tip is to help others in the group, which I admit was void in our household. Gilboa suggests one family member clear all dinner dishes, not just their own. Or, one person folds all the laundry, versus just theirs (as was the practice with my children). Not only do they learn personal accountability, but they’ll also know to pull their weight to the welfare of the whole family.
Resist the urge to take over.
I know it can be tempting to do a chore for your child or redo it if they don’t meet your standards, but try to resist. Kids naturally want to seek more independence as they get older, but this is not a reason to let them off the hook from their family obligations. Older teens can use their driver’s licenses to run errands and cart around younger siblings. Even if they have an increased volume of homework and other academic demands, it’s not a reason to cut back on their contributions. They can still help and contribute.
Sure, there was grumbling at first when I overhauled the chores in our household. But I explained how I was struggling to maintain a happy home with the demands of my professional life and limitations as a human being.
They heard me, because I was speaking from the heart instead of lecturing them. I’ll admit that some days are better than others, which is the reality being on any team or in any family. At the end of the day, though, my husband and I have peace of mind. We know that our beloved daughter and son will be better equipped to manage adulthood, because we are relying on them today.