Mary Ellen Renna, M.D., board-certified pediatrician in Jericho, NY, and author of 10 Steps to Almost Perfect Parenting (SelectBooks, May 2016), offers expert advice on how, when, and why to assign household chores to your little helpers. Joanne Van Zuidam reports:
One expert tells all
Do kids really need to do chores?
Yes! Kids need chores because they inspire a sense of responsibility, self-sufficiency, and achievement, and because they teach kids how to be thoughtful and helpful, and how to contribute to a common goal. Even toddlers can be given some responsibilities at home to keep the household running smoothly—as long as you supervise and the tasks are age appropriate and explained clearly. Show preschool and school-age kids how to do a chore, and then leave it to them to complete it. Always give them an opportunity to redo a chore if your expectations of how the job is done are not met.
How do you define chores?
Chores are activities that help keep the household running smoothly and include tasks such as doing dishes, laundry, dusting, sweeping, walking the dog, and taking out the garbage on a regular basis. However, there is a difference between household chores and self-sufficiency skills children need to master on the way to independence. Children eighteen months to two years can learn to clean up a space by putting toys away—under your guidance. Preschool and elementary school children can begin to put away toys, hang up their jackets and backpacks, put laundry in the hamper, and clean their rooms without Mom’s or Dad’s help.
At what age should children be given chores?
The earlier the better. Starting early helps a task become a habit, and the steps involved help develop the brain’s executive function (planning, focusing, remembering instructions, etc.). Keep your child’s age and ability in mind when assigning chores. A two- to three-year-old child can help dust, fold laundry (match socks, fold washcloths), put napkins on the dinner table. A five- or six-year-old can take a small pile of dirty clothes to the laundry room, fold towels, fill the dog’s bowl with food or water, help you prepare food, or clear the table with supervision.
How do you divide chores between children?
Parents should make the schedule, assign age-appropriate chores, and demonstrate how to do them. Children should complete the chores and not weigh in or argue about the chores they do and don’t want to do. If you meet resistance, smile, stay calm, and say, “No, this is the way it is.” If the complaining pertains to perceived fairness (or lack thereof or a particular chore), there are ways to make distribution more even. No one likes to clean up a dog’s mess, for example, so rotate pleasant and less pleasant chores. Keep a calendar; it may help avoid resistance.
Should kids have consequences for not doing their chores?
Yes, but make sure you state the consequences beforehand. Once tasks are assigned and a schedule is made, stay tough and don’t give in to a tantrum. You might say, “If your dirty clothes are not brought to the laundry room as we agreed, they will not get washed,” and end the discussion. Keep in mind that the consequence has to be something that will impact your child. For example, if your child was looking forward to wearing her favorite top to a friend’s party and she didn’t take her hamper to the laundry room, she will have to pick out another shirt.
What if I didn’t start assigning chores when my kids were young?
It’s never too late to start. You just have to be prepared because your kids may feel blindsided and be resistant. State your intentions clearly—for instance, assign one, two, or three chores a week that need to be completed. Then, if feasible, let your children do certain chores together (like walk the dog or clear the table), or tag-team a chore (one washes dishes, the other dries them). This reinforces the idea of belonging to the household and working together for the common good.