Kids and Chores

Arti­cle from 2001

We con­sid­ered it part of our respon­si­bil­i­ty as par­ents to teach our chil­dren cer­tain habits and skills that they need to be inde­pen­dent, respon­si­ble adults. Tak­ing care of them­selves and their sur­round­ings is impor­tant, and they can’t learn with­out doing. We want­ed them to know how to keep house, cook, plan meals, shop for gro­ceries, etc. The only way for them to learn those things was to do them, over and over again until they become sec­ond nature. 

Also, kids need to know that they are an impor­tant part of the house­hold. If some­one does every­thing for them, they don’t learn that. There’s a cer­tain pride in a job well done, in know­ing that you’ve con­tributed some­thing good to your fam­i­ly, that has to be expe­ri­enced to be understood. 


As adults, we know how to do many things, and we sel­dom remem­ber learn­ing to do them. Boil water? Sure. Clean the bed­room? No prob­lem. Iron a blouse? Got it. But we did have to learn how to do those things at some point. In fact, we had to devel­op sep­a­rate skills for some tasks—how to dust, vac­u­um, hang, or fold cloth­ing to put it away, how to make a bed in order to clean a bed­room, etc. Most 3‑year-olds can be expect­ed to put their toys in the toy box, but they can’t be expect­ed to go clean their bed­rooms inde­pen­dent­ly. Some kids can alpha­bet­ize a shelf of books at 5, and some can’t. 

Pick Up Your Socks cover

If you aren’t sure as to what you can expect from a child of a cer­tain age, check out the book Pick Up Your Socks…and oth­er skills grow­ing chil­dren need!, by Eliz­a­beth Crary. It includes charts of what you can expect from an aver­age child at var­i­ous ages. I do not agree with every­thing Crary says (for instance, she seems to see obe­di­ence and respon­si­bil­i­ty as being oppo­site ends of a spec­trum, and I think that it is rea­son­able to expect both from a child). I found the book very help­ful in gen­er­al, though. 

Mak­ing your expec­ta­tions for your kids very clear is impor­tant. Mak­ing sure that you and any oth­er par­ents in the house­hold agree on those expec­ta­tions is essen­tial. If one par­ent thinks that kids deserve to have every­thing done for them and the oth­er par­ent wants the kids to do chores reg­u­lar­ly, the adults need to work that out between them­selves rather than con­fus­ing the chil­dren. Once the par­ents are agreed, they can o present a unit­ed, clear front to the kids. 

There are tasks that our kids could not do, or could­n’t do with­out help. Genevieve at age 9 was­n’t strong enough to take the full trash cans out to the street on garbage pick-up day, but she was strong enough to bring the emp­ty cans back down the next day. She was­n’t mature enough to mow the grass or use the weed trim­mer, but she was cer­tain­ly old enough to get trash and large rocks and sticks out of the yard before it’s cut. Katie at age 10 was mature enough to use the weed trim­mer, but not quite strong enough for the lawn­mow­er. Rowan at age 12 could do both but was­n’t mature enough to use those tools with­out super­vi­sion. Once a month I moved all the fur­ni­ture in the house to vac­u­um under it. That was­n’t some­thing any of the kids could do (okay, Rowan was very close). I also moved all the kitchen appli­ances that could be moved every month and mopped under them. Again, that was­n’t some­thing the kids could do. 

All three kids could, how­ev­er, help make din­ner, clean the kitchen, do their own laun­dry, clean a bath­room, scoop the cat­box, vac­u­um, dust, etc. We expect­ed them to do those things on a reg­u­lar basis. We taught them how to do those things and set stan­dards for each task. They cer­tain­ly weren’t the only peo­ple in the house who do those things, but they did take turns at them on a reg­u­lar basis. 

Setting Standards

Sam had a lot of emo­tion­al bag­gage tied up with any kind of clean­ing chore. As a child, he’d be told to go clean his room. No mat­ter how hard he tried, though, he could­n’t please his father. Some­thing was always wrong, and his father would get angry, yell, and throw things around. So after a while, Sam would just go into the room, get over­whelmed, move a few things around, and get lost in a com­ic book. He stopped try­ing, and as an adult he nev­er expect­ed his own kids to clean any­thing. Their rooms were absolute­ly scary. When, at ages 6 and 9, they were final­ly told “yes, you have to clean your room now,” they had no idea of where to start. 

We end­ed up mak­ing detailed lists to help the kids —and Sam. As an exam­ple, the clean bed­room stan­dards in our house were as follows: 

  1. Noth­ing on the floor but the furniture.
  2. Noth­ing on the sur­faces (tables, etc.) except those things that are sup­posed to be there (knick knacks, alarm clock, etc.)
  3. All cloth­ing put away prop­er­ly (hung neat­ly or fold­ed neat­ly in drawers).
  4. Noth­ing under the beds or oth­er fur­ni­ture but the clean carpet.
  5. Bed looks neat —sheets and pil­lows in place, blan­kets fold­ed, etc.
  6. Books on book­shelf are neat.
  7. All toys put away properly.
  8. All sur­faces dust­ed, includ­ing tops of pic­tures. No fin­ger­prints or smears on framed items.
  9. Floors vac­u­umed, includ­ing under the bed (using the vac­u­um clean­er hose).
  10. At least once a month, straight­en draw­ers and clos­ets and dis­card out­grown cloth­ing and footwear.

We had sim­i­lar lists for the bath­rooms, kitchen, liv­ing area, etc. It may seem ridicu­lous to have to spec­i­fy all those things, but we did­n’t have argu­ments about whether or not a room was clean after we did so. If we asked “Is your room clean?” the kids knew exact­ly what we mean. There was no yelling and it did­n’t mat­ter if they were talk­ing to me or to Sam. The stan­dards were always the same. 

Teaching Skills

Sweep­ing a floor prop­er­ly is a skill. Using the vac­u­um clean­er is a skill. Wip­ing down a table or counter with­out just push­ing the crumbs onto the floor is a skill. As adults, we take those skills for grant­ed. We can’t expect our chil­dren to have such skills unless we con­scious­ly mod­el them and patient­ly teach them to the chil­dren. They won’t do things as effi­cient­ly or thor­ough­ly as we do at first, and we have to remem­ber that and let them go at their own pace. Yes, it may take your son an hour to clean a bath­room the first time he does it on his own. In time, though, he’ll learn to do it more quickly. 

It’s my expe­ri­ence that very small chil­dren want to do what­ev­er their par­ents are doing. They want to help Mom­my sweep, or wash the car, or fold tow­els. That’s how they learn. Take advan­tage of that stage! Give them a broom they can han­dle and let them try sweep­ing. Teach them to wash the car, to fold the tow­els, to mea­sure the flour for mak­ing cook­ies. Be patient —they won’t get it right the first time, and their main inter­est is being with you and doing “big peo­ple stuff.” When your daugh­ter makes her very own sand­wich absolute­ly all by her­self for the first time, she’ll be burst­ing with pride. Let her expe­ri­ence that! Lat­er will be time enough to show her how to get the peanut but­ter and jel­ly smears off the table, the chair, the floor, and her clothes. 

Because we had a blend­ed fam­i­ly, and Sam’s kids were not taught things that way, I had to adjust some expec­ta­tions about what they should have known, and we went back and did reme­di­al Life Skills 101 with them. Three years into our lives togeth­er, they could now do most of the things I expect of them at their respec­tive ages but they need­ed more super­vi­sion and reminders than Katie did because they had­n’t been doing them as long as she had. 


We tried var­i­ous ways of help­ing our kids remem­ber the things they need to do, both for them­selves and for the fam­i­ly. As for motivation—well, they did­n’t find “hey, the kitchen floor feels gross if it isn’t mopped reg­u­lar­ly” to be very com­pelling. We tied priv­i­leges (like watch­ing TV sole­ly for enter­tain­ment) to their respon­si­bil­i­ties. They did­n’t always see the rela­tion­ship and some­times whichev­er child was­n’t per­mit­ted to have a cer­tain priv­i­lege until he or she fin­ished an assigned task insist­ed that it was sim­ply unfair. We devel­oped a token sys­tem that made the rela­tion­ship of chores to priv­i­leges very clear. 

Staying On Track

I real­ly, real­ly hate nag­ging any­body to do any­thing. It seems that I was the only per­son in our house­hold who, in the nor­mal course of a day, noticed that the dish­wash­er need­ed to be loaded, run, and unloaded, that a load of tow­els need­ed to be washed, or that the liv­ing room need­ed to be vac­u­umed. If I was the only per­son who notices, either I was like­ly to be the per­son who did every­thing or I had to nag oth­er peo­ple to take care of need­ed tasks. I would quick­ly start get­ting angry and resent­ful in that sit­u­a­tion. The rest of the house­hold only noticed the lack of clean dish­es when they could­n’t find any to use, or the absence of tow­els when they need­ed to take a show­er. Since Sam and I did agree that every­body in the house needs to con­tribute labor towards keep­ing it live­able, we need­ed a way to make sure that tasks are assigned fair­ly and that peo­ple remem­ber to do them. Our way of keep­ing up with tasks involved a sys­tem of index cards.

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