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 the trash and large rocks and sticks out of the yard before it was 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, 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 do most of the things I expecte of them at their respec­tive ages. 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 noticed, 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 for a meal, 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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