Many a parent looks forward to the day when the kids are able to help out around the house. But how old is old enough? And how can moms and dads begin to teach their children to pick up?
Start early and start simple, say many experts. “Most children are ready to begin helping out as toddlers with simple tasks. Keep in mind that the developmental age is more important than the chronological age, particularly for children who are developmentally delayed,” says Dr. Yi Hui Liu, Section Head of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of California San Diego.
- Start simple. For a toddler, that can mean putting away toys and books after using them. Preschoolers can set the table or make their beds. And elementary school-aged children are able to move on to more advanced tasks, such as helping make dinner, feeding pets, or putting away laundry. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children take on more responsibility each year.
- Set specific jobs. Pick duties that have set endpoints, such as picking up toys for a certain amount of time. Having a daily routine can help kids remember their duties—for example, setting the table each day before dinner. As children mature, their chores can change.
- Help them out. Aren’t chores supposed to be for the kids to help the parents? Eventually, yes. But when preschoolers are learning, the most important thing is to give them a sense that they are capable of successfully putting away their toys or folding their socks. Nancy French from Columbia, Tennessee, gives her three children weekly jobs that include sorting silverware, making beds, and straightening up their toys. The main concern is not how much tidying the kids actually accomplish, but what it teaches them. “It wasn’t really to help me, but to get them into the mode of work,” says French.
- Make it fun. Cleaning can be much more fun when it feels like play. Children love to use small brooms while Mom or Dad uses a big one. Or introduce a time challenge. “We’ve been making it a game,” says Julie Quinn, a mother of six- and four-year old girls from Douglassville, Georgia. “Set the timer and see what we can accomplish in ten minutes or so, depending on how big the mess or chore is. Things get picked up fast, and they have fun trying to beat the clock.” Even something as simple as singing Barney’s “Clean Up Song” can make toddlers forget they’re doing work.
- Mix it up! Variety can go a long way in keeping kids engaged with housework. When jobs get boring, consider rotating duties. “For example, chores may be assigned by spinning a wheel or drawing a random task out of a jar,” says Liu.
- Decide whether chores will be linked to allowances or rewards. Some parents give kids allowances based on the chores they do, while others believe kids should do chores because they are part of the family. “It really is very important that they know how to do these things and be a functioning part of the family and not a taker,” says Sue Butzow, a mother of two boys from San Jose, California. Some families don’t connect chores to allowances, but establish guidelines that youngsters need to do their work before certain privileges, such as watching TV or playing a video game.
- Remember, it’s about learning habits. Responsibility and organization are not learned overnight, but they are skills that will last for years to come. “The bottom line is that the art of cleaning is a hands-on process,” says Tabitha Schillinger, mother of three from Hiram, Georgia. “As a parent, take a deep breath, have patience, and teach our kiddos how to take care of and manage a house.”