A five-year-old brings a plant home from school and is excited to see it grow. Her parents—that would be my wife and I—show her how to water it, and then tell her it is her responsibility to do so. She does, for several weeks before slacking off, and eventually, to her sorrow, the plant inevitably dies. Her nine-year-old sister, playing Minecraft on her dad’s iPad near the end of the day, asks for a cup of water, eyes never lifting off the screen. I let her know I’m busy at the moment but she is welcome to fetch herself a drink, which she does, getting herself an end-of-day snack while she’s up. Meanwhile, their youngest sister, at two, finishes an applesauce pouch and, with her mother’s encouragement, runs into the kitchen to throw it out.
Setting clear expectations for how kids should help out at home—by doing chores that benefit the family (like watering the plants) and taking responsibility for their own needs (like that cup of water)—teaches kids responsibility, independence, and caring for the communal good, along with the self-confidence and sense of pride that come along with those lessons.
A flurry of articles lately has focused on young millennial adults who graduate from college and seem unprepared for the life that follows. Many of them move back in with Mom and Dad and see no reason to leave and give up the free room, board, and housekeeping. There’s a connection between the dead plant, fetched cup of water, and tossed applesauce pouch on the one hand, and the hapless millennial on the other. We’re hoping our kids’ experiences doing chores and taking care of their own needs, to the extent they can, will help them grow into capable, confident adults. In other words, the road to eventual empty-nest bliss starts with a cup of water.
The Chore-Life Balance
Chores used to be an integral part of family life. But then came multiple hours of homework, coupled with umpteen after-school activities—not to mention the advent of less authoritarian parenting. Assigning chores to kids became, for many parents, much less essential. Quite the contrary: With children so busy, so exhausted at the end of the day, many of today’s parents have prioritized their kids’ downtime over household responsibilities. But while homework, along with free play and relaxation, are indeed essential, it is a mistake to let chores go by the wayside. Setting clear expectations for how kids should help out at home—by doing chores that benefit the family (like watering the plants) and taking responsibility for their own needs (like that cup of water)—teaches kids responsibility, independence, and caring for the communal good, along with the self-confidence and sense of pride that come along with those lessons.
No matter how much homework our kids have, no matter how exhausted they are from soccer practice, it’s essential that we hold them to their chores and insist they do for themselves and not rely on us parents to be at their service. After all, no child is going to ask her coach to get her a cup of water or her drama teacher to clean up her props or costumes. Furthermore, chances are our kids are willingly and even eagerly getting water for their teammates or helping their cast mates clean up. That means kids are showing responsibility and caring for others when they are out in the world. They need to know that these responsibilities extend to the house and the family. Otherwise, they risk growing into adults who are capable and collegial at work but choose to do little for themselves outside the office.
Of course, kids will push back. Why make my own bed, when there’s someone—that would be you, Mom and Dad—to do it for me? Why feed the fish when I don’t really care if they are hungry or not? But, parents, we must stick to the plan and insist, and over time, we will see our children accept their responsibilities without rebellion and even begin to show their own initiative and independence. When my daughter got up to get her water, she helped herself to a snack without first asking us to get it for her. That was progress.
Do for Them vs Do for Themselves
And when this progress happens, it’s essential that we parents praise and encourage it. When kids show they are able to take responsibility, it’s time to give them more of it, and with that, more independence. Friends of mine present their children at every birthday with a new responsibility and a new privilege. For instance, they might say, “You are now old enough to have your own key to the house, and we also expect you to help rake the leaves and keep the lawn tidy.” Pairing privilege with responsibility in this way sends the message that the two are intertwined, and presenting them together shows that the parents have confidence that their kids are ready for both. And when kids feel respected and trusted and take pride in their own independence and responsibility, they will want more of it—and that is what any parent should be seeking.
The road to responsibility is never easy or straightforward; there will be setbacks. The two-year-old eager to clean up her toys and toss her trash may grow into the five-year-old who doesn’t want to water her plant. But persistence and consistency do work. Setting clear expectations for the chores our kids must do and the ways in which they must care for themselves will eventually pay off. That five-year-old becomes the nine-year-old who continually surprises her parents with her level of independence and sense of responsibility—and will, most likely, become a teenager who wants nothing to do with chores or family together time. Eventually, though, the hope is that that teenager will become a young adult able to thrive at work and home, independently, responsibly, and not living in her childhood bedroom.