Children should do chores. Period.
Besides the practical benefits of helping their parents, the reality is that children have psychological-developmental needs related to doing chores. It’s healthy for kids to contribute at home. Being a part of the ongoing work of running a household helps children develop an awareness of the needs of others, while at the same time contributing to their own emotional well being. Children who consider themselves necessary to the family are less likely to feel adrift in a world where a core human need is to feel needed.
In some families assigning the kids chores is actually a controversial premise, at least in practice. Some parents believe that their children are “too busy for chores,” that “their job is school,” or that it’s unimportant. In others, parents just don’t believe that their kids should have to do chores. However, many parents assign chores and say that they believe in their importance, but more often than not the chores simply don’t get done and the parents don’t follow through. They may talk the talk, but walking the walk is another issue.
A survey of 1,001 American adults indicated that 75 percent believed regular chores made kids “more responsible” and 63 percent said chores teach kids “important life lessons.” Yet while 82 percent reported having had regular chores growing up, only 56 percent of those with children said they required them to do chores.
Between 2001 and 2005 a team of researchers from UCLA’s Center on the Everyday Lives of Families recorded 1,540 hours of footage of 32 middle-class, families in which both parents worked outside the home with at least two children in Los Angeles. They found that the parents did most of the housework and intervened quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task. Children in 22 families made it a practice to ignore or resist their parents’ requests for help. In 8 families, the parents didn’t actually ask children to do much of anything. There were only two families in which kids helped out in meaningful ways. It was compelling enough that one of the researchers called working on the study “the very purest form of birth control ever devised.”
If (or, more likely, when) they have questions or need further guidance, be available to provide it, but actually completing the chores is on your kids—make it their responsibility. Chores also teach your kids that you’re not there to do everything for them, including clean up after them. Assigning chores creates the expectation and understanding that your kids need to contribute to their environment by giving them specific responsibilities to actualize it.
One longitudinal study done over a period of 25 years, found that the best predictor for young adults’ success in their mid-20s was whether they participated in household tasks at age 3 or 4. Those early shared responsibilities extended to a sense of responsibility in other areas of their lives.
Even young children are perfectly capable of helping around the house; giving them chores is both helpful and healthy—the earlier, the better, as long as they are developmental stage-appropriate chores. For example, with parental guidance and expectation, younger children can learn to put away their toys and clear their dishes from the table after meals.
With regard to older children and teenagers, give them opportunities to earn the more adult-level privileges they seek. Far from being entitlements, privileges such as access to a smartphone, a car, or spending money should be earned by contributing to the daily functioning of the family, including chores. Connect the dots between such privileges and specific responsibilities with your teenage kids, so they clearly understand the linkage between more adult-level privileges and certain responsibilities. If they choose to opt out of this arrangement or shirk their assigned responsibilities, they also choose to relinquish the associated privileges.
The experience of having this level of choice and being able to influence part of their destiny helps build teenagers’ sense of self-efficacy and deepen their understanding of the relationship between their actions and the consequences of those actions—both positive and negative.
Getting children to do chores is often far from easy but it’s actually quite simple: insist and persist. When new chores are assigned it’s beneficial to show your kids how them how to do them, and do the chores with them the first few times until they get the hang of it. Then give them the responsibility to do the chores on their own. Strive to not buy into excuses and accept that you may need to repeat yourself over and over.
There may be times when it seems as though you’re spending more time getting your kid(s) to do the assigned chore than it would take to do it yourself—that’s not uncommon, and it’s certainly not a good-enough reason to throw in the towel and absolve them of responsibility. Besides, doing that only reinforces your kids’ behavior to make giving them chores so difficult for you that you give up and let them off the hook. Your time and energy is an investment that will ultimately pay dividends—for you and for them.
Children who help out at home feel a greater sense of responsibility and connectedness to their parents/families, and that connection helps them to negotiate life’s stresses and strains. This enhances resiliency and distress tolerance, and aids emotional regulation. Chores are not just work; they’re essential life skills.
Copyright 2019 Dan Mager, MSW
Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain