I tried something different the other day.
Usually, when it’s time to do chores around the house, I turn on Netflix, plop my son in front of the TV, and let Disney babysit for me. He is, after all, four years old, and four-year-olds are not particularly famous for their floor-scrubbing abilities.
I didn’t realize how much this was affecting him until we passed by a toy ship from his favorite show, Jake and The Neverland Pirates.
“It’s The Mighty Colossus,” my son told me, not so much speaking as shrieking. “I need it!”
I said no. He erupted.
He couldn’t understand why we couldn’t afford to buy every toy we saw. Soon he was in tears, thrashing wildly. My wife and I were, for the first time in our lives, one of those parents. We had that naughty, uncontrollable child in the store that made people tsk and think, at least that’s not my child.
The next day, we tried to do things differently. We planned to clean the whole house, and our son was going to help the entire time. It was supposed to be a punishment – but he loved it. It ended up being one of the best days of his life.
I didn’t need to plop him in front of the TV to do chores. He could help. More than that, he wanted to help. And, as it turns out, he’s actually pretty good at scrubbing the floors.
Children, I’m learning, need to do chores. A lot of us don’t ask our kids for contributions like that. In fact, only 28 percent of parents make their kids do chores. But it’s the best thing you can do for your kids, for a lot of reasons.
Part of the reason I put my son to work was because of a Ted Talk. Harvard University ran a 75-year-long study that followed people through their entire lives. It tracked their physical and emotional health, trying, in part, to find some kind of insight into what makes people happy and successful.
Chores, it concluded, were the key. When it came to their careers, the one thing that could predict whether a child grew up successful linked back to chores. Kids who had to help out at home were more successful in their careers as adults. The earlier they started the better.
It makes a lot of sense. According to Julie Lythcott-Haims, when kids do chores, they learn that they have to contribute to life to participate in it. When you do all the cooking, your kids grow up thinking that food is provided for them. But when kids help, they understand there’s work involved.
When I showed my son how to change the toilet paper when it gets low, I decided to work in a little science lesson. I cracked open the plastic that holds the toilet paper in place and showed him the spring inside.
“When you push it, it gets smaller,” I told him, “and when you let go, it gets big again!”
He was captivated. He spent a good 10 minutes just playing with the spring, squeezing it together, taking it on and off the toilet paper dispenser, and experimenting with an early concept in engineering.
He’d learned something – and he could apply it. A few days later, he called me into his room to show me a discovery he’d made changing out the batteries in a toy. “Look, Dada,” he told me. “It has springs!”
A lot of parents worry that they’re ruining their kids’ childhoods by tormenting them with chores. They’re not. Kids love helping out around the house.
To a young child, everything Mom and Dad can do is mystifying. We are gigantic creatures with seemingly magical powers, and they are dying to know our secrets. They would love to know what sorcery we conjure up in the kitchen to make sandwiches appear, or how we get the vacuum to make the dust vanish before their very eyes.
Learning how to do a new chore is exhilarating for children. It means they’ve mastered some of the amazing tricks their parents can perform. It assures them that they will, one day, be as tall and as smart as Mama and Dada and be able to do all the amazing things we can do.
After spending a day cleaning the house with my son, he spotted me washing the dishes. He grabbed a rag hanging off the oven and rushed over.
“Dada,” he said. “Can you show me how to do that?”
Life’s a lot easier when your kids help out, and they can help a lot more than we realize.
If they start young, our kids can learn how to do a lot. A Montessori chart has been making the rounds online that offers a list of age-appropriate chores for children. It really is worth following. Don’t be surprised if your child can do even more than what the chart suggests.
And don’t be surprised if your child actually likes helping you.