I have fond memories of making the bed with my son, Luis, when he was 3. He created a game that involved helping me stretch the sheets across the bed and smooth them out. Each time, just as I tried to straighten the covers by lifting them into the air like a tent, he would throw himself on top or dive underneath, laughing and shrieking with glee. Even though I was usually in a hurry, I couldn’t help but laugh with him.
Fast-forward about 10 years, and chores are no longer a source of hilarity. But Luis, now 14, and Lila, 10, are used to helping out with housework. Between them, they help with cooking, sweeping, cleaning their rooms, general tidying up, and taking care of our dog, parakeets, and chickens. It turns out, though, expecting our children to do chores puts us in the minority.
A 2014 survey by Braun Research found that even though 82 percent of the 1,001 American adults polled said they had regular chores as a kid, only 28 percent require their own children to do chores. Though many kids’ time is swallowed up in extracurricular activities — from dance classes and drama to tutoring and team sports, not to mention social media — parenting experts advise against ditching chores.
“Parents today want their kids spending time on things that can bring them success, but ironically, we’ve stopped doing one thing that’s actually been a proven predictor of success — and that’s household chores,” Richard Rende, developmental psychologist and co-author of Raising Can-Do Kids, told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. Having the kids help you with the housework teaches responsibility, but more importantly, it shows them that family members cooperate and work together — even if that involves some jumping on the sheets.
Giving kids a pass from chores, experts say, may hurt them in the long run by creating divas rather than a sense of community and belonging. “I just told one mother I work with that yes, chores are important for kids,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist based in Fairfield County, CT. “Every child feels better when they feel needed.”
This is true even of preschoolers, who want to be “big kids” and love to help out with chores, according to Deborah Gilboa, a child development expert and clinical associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In her book Get the Behavior You Want… Without Being the Parent You Hate, she advises parents to turn chores into games and not to worry if things get a little messy or if the tasks take longer with “help.”
Among the suggestions she’s collected from moms and preschool teachers are singing a cleanup song — the sillier the better — and making chores into a game. For example, ask, “How fast can you get the toys back in the toybox?” Other ideas? Turn on some music and dance while you’re sweeping or have a race to see who can toss the most clothes in the laundry basket.
Just make sure the chore is right for your little helper. Chores like using cleansers or emptying the dishwasher are not age-appropriate and could even be dangerous, say experts. Besides the risk of a preschooler cutting herself on a broken dish or swallowing leftover detergent, “You need little chores for little bodies,” Greenberg says.
Here are some age-appropriate chores to try:
Putting their (small and medium-sized) toys away.
Even 3- and 4-year-olds can help put their blocks or puzzle pieces or action figures back into the box they’re kept in. (And yes, it would be faster if you just did it yourself!)
Helping wipe up small messes.
When the milk literally spills, your child can get a paper towel (or you can hand it to them) and sop up the liquid. And if your child needs to crawl under a table or chair to do it, all the better — that’s fun!
Dusting surfaces they can reach by wearing socks on their hands.
No, it the surface isn’t likely to pass a Mary Poppins finger-swipe cleanliness test afterward, but that’s okay.
Watering outside plants with a hose.
Water is fun, and spraying water is even better. Have your child to count to 10 while watering each plant and you have a fun math game going, too.
Hanging up their own jacket (provided there’s a hook or hanger within their reach).
Depending on how your home is organized and what your child can reach, the possibilities are endless here, including putting backpack, shoes, lunchboxes, etc. away.