He was only five years old, teetering down the stairs to the basement, his arms full of clothes. I followed, intrigued, assuming his load was supplies for a fort or some other imagined adventure. His bare feet padded quietly across the concrete floor and his little arms circled his bundle tightly. Arriving at his destination, his arms relaxed and the shirts and grass-stained pants fell limply to the floor. Then he did the most amazing thing: he sorted his clothing into three piles, turned, and plodded back up the stairs.
I stood, stunned, in the dimly lit laundry room, staring at what the boy had left behind: three mounds – whites, darks, and colors – lying by the washing machine. I was speechless. But for the boy, it was just another day and just another chore. Task completed, he returned to fighting imaginary battles and slaying make-believe dragons in the garden.
My amazement was not unfounded. According to a study by Braun Research released in 2014, only 28 percent of children are expected to complete household chores (compared to 82 percent of their parents’ generation). What was once considered the norm appears to now be the anomaly. The astounding thing is not, perhaps, the sharp decrease in number of households that incorporate chores into the daily family structure, but what we lose when we remove these seemingly menial tasks from our children’s list of expectations.
Chores in and of themselves provide a multitude of pro-social skills that greatly benefit our kids as they grow up. For instance, studies have shown that adults who began doing chores at a young age (three to four years old) were more likely to have academic and career successes, have positive relationships, and be self-sufficient. In a world that teaches us to continually strive to achieve that next goal, it’s hard to believe we overlook chores as a staple of childhood. Understandably, with so much success to measure and scholarships to achieve, children are often laden down with enough homework and extracurricular activities that chores may seem trivial.
However, they teach children something that is less measurable and yet is critical to success in life: how to care.
According to psychologist Richard Weissbourd, chores teach children more than just hard work and mastery, but also empathy and responsibility for, and responsiveness to, others. As discussed in his report, Weissbourd states that we “need to create more settings where children engage in traditions and rituals that build appreciation and gratitude and a sense of responsibility for one’s communities, and that enable them to practice helpfulness and service.” These traditions and rituals do not need to be grand gestures; understanding that helping one another benefits those we love is a big lesson that can be learned in small ways, whether that’s washing dishes or putting away toys.
Chores are an instinctual way to use children’s desire to be helpers to teach them how to care for one another. As Richard Rende, developmental psychologist and author of “Raising Can-Do Kids,” describes, these critical life skills we keep returning to are best learned “when chores are approached as the things we all need to do to take care of each other and make life better.” Which they are, inherently: cooking dinner sustains us, laundering clothes promotes health, and tidying up reduces anxiety.
Tasking children with a list of “to-dos” may be more of a means to an end than a lesson on caring. However, incorporating children into the rhythm of the day and into the tasks we complete to sustain ourselves – from cooking to cleaning to feeding the dog – will give the child a sense of responsibility and help him understand his role as a member of the family.
It's easy to put off a chore in lieu of completing homework or practicing their sport or instrument of choice, but this teaches children that their individual task outweighs the benefits of contributing to the family as a whole. Asking your child to help make dinner or put his laundry away teaches him that his contributions to others are valuable. He learns to respond to the needs of others, develops empathic reactions, and ultimately builds upon his inherent desire to help and care for others.
Of course, the how and what of chores baffles many parents as does the discussion on whether paying children for chores is beneficial. (Paying a child gets the task done, but it does not allow a child to understand that the reward of a completed chore is not money but rather that he contributed to the greater good.) There are a few things to remember when incorporating chores into your child’s routine, from what is age-appropriate to how to motivate (especially for those trying to introduce chores with older children).
Consistency and follow-through not only help your children understand that their new responsibility is theirs, but also help them understand the important role they have in the family. By letting them shirk this responsibility or pass it off to a sibling or parent, you teach them that their role in the family is either less important or more important than others’ roles. Neither is a positive choice.
Asking a three-year-old to wash the porcelain dishes will end in tears as both child and parent become frustrated by a task the child cannot complete on their own. However, asking your toddler to help stir something you're cooking or put away their toys provides them with small tasks that they can complete on their own. Their sense of accomplishment and joy in being a helper will keep them coming back for more.
When children are invited to participate in routine tasks that benefit the family, they build responsiveness and empathy, fortifying their ability to nurture later in life. Children learn that sweeping the kitchen floor and doing everyone’s laundry contributes to the needs of others and helps them feel secure in their place in the group. They begin to see that they can help others.
As children age, their ability to contribute increases. From carrying a couple items to the laundry, to sorting, then folding, and finally to completing the task on their own. By asking a child to participate at the level they are capable (not the level they are comfortable per se), they recognize that their contributions can change and adapt to their capabilities, the needs of the environment, and the needs of those around them.
Studies have shown that children who are referred to as “helpers” versus “helping” develop a stronger positive self-identity. And where there’s positive identity, there’s more willingness to contribute. Additionally, it’s important to remember that actions can speak louder than words. Saying you will do a chore as opposed to completing the chore (or putting it off) will have a big impact on your child’s motivation to participate.
Everyone wants to feel a sense of worth and children are no different. By acknowledging their role in the family and the importance of their contribution to the wellness of those they love, we have an opportunity to teach our children they matter. Not only that, we can show them that they are capable helpers and that their actions affect those around them. Learning empathy is crucial to developing the skills of caring for others, fostering positive relationships, succeeding academically and professionally, and cultivating self-reliance.
It just might be time to put aside the homework for an hour and cook dinner together instead.