By Dr. Laura Markham
“My little guy does not like it when I cook or do laundry or do the dishes. Why am I not paying attention to him? But I soon realized that he loves to help. He puts clothes in the washing machine, gathers potatoes to bring to the kitchen, brings me clothes hangers. And yes, it takes much longer than if I had done it all myself. But he actually squeals with delight at being given his next task. And I end up being much less frustrated.” -Wendy
Most parents wish their kids would help more around the house. That would be a good thing, right?
The answer is yes, and not just because it makes our lives as parents easier. (The truth is, it would probably be easier to do it ourselves!) Research shows that kids who have household responsibilities are more likely to step up and help others outside the home. My theory is that these kids are accustomed to helping, and they see their contributions as valuable. Responsibility at home really does make kids better citizens.
So why don’t kids help more, and what can you do about it in your own home?
1. Because kids hate chores.
It’s a reasonable attitude, given that most adults find housework boring and menial. After all, kids have so many other, more interesting, demands on their time. And they really can’t see why it matters if the floor gets swept.
Make it about fun and mastery. Remember that if you make the experience of contributing to the family feel like a chore, your child will avoid his chores like the plague. Instead, think of this as a chance for your child to enjoy getting good at something. Look at how she made the kitchen table shine! How’d he get so fast at pairing up socks? Over time, they’ll come to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, and even to take pride in being a capable cook or gardener.
Make it about connection and appreciation. Recognize that your child doesn’t see much intrinsic value in household work, unless she’s doing it with you. Instead of sending her off to work by herself, see the work as an opportunity to bond with her. Play his favorite music and sing along. Find the joy in working together, and inspire your child with it. Tell him how much it means to you to have his help:
“Thank you so much! We make a great team… Many hands make lighter work. And then we have more time for fun together!”
Remember that anyone will resist less if they have choices about which chores to do. And it doesn’t hurt to have a little motivation waiting after the family clean-up on Saturday mornings, like a trip to the park.
2. Because it’s easier to do it ourselves.
When children are young enough to be interested in helping with housework, we shoo them away. By the time they could be helpful, it takes so much time to teach them that it’s still easier to do it ourselves. Besides, by then, they’re absorbed in other, more exciting pursuits, and the battle to get them to “help” feels too frustrating.
Change your attitude about why kids are doing chores. It isn’t to save you time, at least not initially. It’s to learn life skills, and to experience how good it feels to contribute. Expect to spend time teaching and supervising.
The younger kids are when they begin doing household tasks, the better. Toddlers (like Wendy’s in the quote above) usually love helping. Consciously involve your child in what you’re doing from an early age, even though it takes much more time. Make it fun for them. Set expectations like:
- “Everyone works together at our house”
- “We always clean up our own messes… come on, I’ll help you…”
That will help your children begin to see themselves as contributing something of value. That’s a basic human need, and children enjoy that feeling as much as adults do.
If your kids are older, do you still need to work with them? Yes, if you want them to enjoy chores and learn how to do them well! Rather than assigning chores, try working as a team. Have each child participate in a project while you work with them. Your job is solely to be the coordinator, troubleshoot any problems that come up, and keep things fun and on track. For instance, maybe your 12 year old makes eggs for breakfast while your ten year old makes the toast. Yes, that is actually realistic, but you’ll need to be there as the assistant to help everything go smoothly. There’s no reason your children can’t enjoy making meals for the family by the time they’re teens, so that everyone in the family cooks once a week — but it takes your involvement over time to get to that point.
3. Because kids “need” us to help them.
Kids do need babying from time to time. It reassures them that we’re there to protect and nurture them. Besides, they have to work hard to keep it together at school all day, and they need plenty of opportunities at home to relax their executive selves and let their baby-selves come out. If they don’t get those opportunities, you can be sure the baby-self will surface as soon as you ask your child to help out, or even to put on his own shoes.
Don’t be afraid to “baby” your child when he asks you for help, and make sure he gets plenty of other opportunities to be silly and “off duty” including spending special time together. Then, once you’re sure that he’s getting his need to feel “cared for” met, when he asks for help with a task you know he can do, stay with him offering encouragement but let him handle it. If you keep your sense of humor along with your expectation that your child actually can make his own peanut butter sandwich, he’ll be astonished to find that he really can do it himself, and his confidence to try new tasks will grow.