Summer is the perfect time to teach your child practical life skills like doing the laundry or tidying up the house. But you shouldn't nag or yell at kids to get them to do chores. Here's how to approach housework so that kids learn responsibility and respect — and maybe even have fun.
When Allison Carter, a mother of two, got tired of dealing with her family's endless piles of laundry, she didn't make a fuss. Instead, she taught her 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to wash, fold and put away their own clothes. Not only did this lighten Carter's housework, it has been good for the kids, too.
Still, a recent university study found that many parents today typically only give their kids trivial jobs, such as putting dishes in the dishwasher. Schoolwork is the kids' main task.
"Although homework and academic curriculums may be much more demanding than in the past, children may not be doing enough to help around the house to develop a sense of competence," says Markella Rutherford, an assistant professor who supervised the study at Wellesley College.
Of course, chores aren't something you can expect your kids to want to do. Even you probably don't look forward to scrubbing the toilet or taking out the trash. But because doing chores fosters so much more than just getting a job done, they're worth incorporating into your child's busy schedule.
It's all a question of finding the right balance. Too many chores can be overwhelming and unfair to a child — so don't overdo it. But expecting too little from children does not do them any favors, either. Unless you teach children the basics of housework, "Your kids may never learn how to do practical things like laundry or pick up after themselves," says Carter, who is proud of how her children have assumed responsibility for their own clothes.
Here are some ways you can help your kids clean up their act and learn invaluable life lessons. Summer is a great time to start.
Assign tasks based on your child's age. It's never too early to enlist your child's assistance. Even preschoolers can put napkins on the table, help match the socks, put their toys away and help you look for items at the supermarket. From preschool to the lower elementary grades, you'll need to do the task with them until they're old enough to do it themselves. Even a first grader isn't likely to clean the living room solo. Emphasize, "We're doing this together" without getting angry. But over the years, you can expect kids to do more without your support or reminding. Eventually, the process will become ingrained and your kids will tidy up automatically.
Be realistic. Based on your children's ages and stages, the tasks they can be expected to handle vary. Younger children can put their toys away or set the table. As kids get older, ask them to put their backpack away after school, put their clean clothes away, load and empty the dishwasher, take out the garbage, vacuum and dust, wash the car, or do the laundry. Teens can learn to cook simple meals and run errands.
Share the burdens. Rotate chores as much as possible, taking into consideration your children's ages so that no one gets stuck with the same job or is given a task beyond their abilities. Some families rely on chore charts, but you may want to consider encouraging your kids to work together to decide who does what. This fosters cooperation, teamwork and problem solving. "See if they can sort the tasks out by themselves," says Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D., president of the Better Parenting Institute. It will be music to your ears when your hear them say to each other, "You dust the furniture while I vacuum."
Relax your standards. Your children want to please you, so be encouraging if you want them to keep trying. Accept that they may not be able to do things as well as you would do them yourself. Once you teach your child how to do certain chores, such as mopping the floor or wiping the kitchen counter, don't point out every spot they miss if they have put forth a sincere effort. And don't let them see you redo their work. It will make them feel like there was no point in trying. Perfection is not the point here. Teaching them responsibility is. Their skills will improve with time.
Don't be a nag. If you're always reminding your kids to do their chores, they'll learn to depend on you for that cue. Instead, help them remember to do tasks without prodding by teaching them to evaluate their own work. "If you go into the bathroom and see the towels on the floor again, for example, instead of saying, 'Pick up the towels,' ask your child: 'What's wrong with this picture?'" Panaccione suggests. Another option is to assign your kids their own designated towel. If it ends up on the bathroom floor again, so be it. That's what they get to use next time, a logical consequence for not hanging the towel up.
Try to make it fun. We're not pretending that cleaning the kitchen is a festival of fun, but for little kids, doing "grown-up" things can seem be exciting — even if it involves tasks we think of chores. Put on fun music, team up, and make a game of cleaning day. The time will go pass much faster, and you'll share the sense of accomplishment.
Focus on the outcome. Encourage your kids by offering an incentive to clean up. For example, tell them that once they've picked up their toys, you can go to the playground or watch a movie together. Or once the kitchen is clean, they can invite a friend over. That's not bribing. Rather, it makes children understand that completing chores makes other fun activities possible. Team up and concentrate on public areas in your house — the common ground you all inhabit — so kids get the greatest sense that "we're all in this together." Depending on their age, consider letting them do what they want with the upkeep their bedroom, their own domain. They'll have to live with the consequences.
Pile on the praise. Giving praise for the helpful things your child does, even if they're small, helps reinforce that behavior. But make your accolades authentic. Rather than declaring, "You're the greatest laundry folder in the world," you might say, "Oh, you're doing a great job folding all the laundry. I'm so proud of you for helping out." Kids love it when you recognize their contribution and honestly express gratitude; it's a competence and confidence booster.
Stop stepping in. If you want to teach your kids to pick up after themselves, you'll have to resist the urge to pick up after them yourself. That can be tough for parents who like order. But consider this: "Every time you pick up after everyone, you reinforce their behavior and you condition them to keep cluttering," says Josh Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. Your children learn that if they leave their stuff around, you'll take care of it. Instead, teach them to pick up after themselves by stating a rule, such as, "When you come home, I'd like you to put your things in your room so you'll know where they are in the morning." If they forget, don't do it for them. And don't help them find their shoes, bathing suit or bookbag the next day when they are not where they were supposed to be. That's now their problem. When kids finally get the message (they will), reinforce that behavior with praise, as in "Thank you for putting your stuff away. I love how clean the living room is." In time, picking up will become as much of a habit for them as expecting you to do it once was.
Sandra Gordon writes on a wide rage of family, health and finance topics.