The parenting plot took a sudden and depraved storyline twist in March. Kids were home-schooled while parents used Zoom to go into the office. No one could leave for anything but the essentials, and all of that eating, working, sleeping, and playing at home put tremendous strain on the dynamics of who-does-what to keep the house functioning.
Few thought they would survive this forced familial closeness, and on some days the best a parent could do was to scooch the unfolded laundry a little farther down the couch, tell Netflix that yes, you are still watching Trolls: The Beat Goes On because even on episode five of season seven you remain unable to tell the difference between Satin and Chenille, and try to convince the other adult in the house that Rice Krispies and red wine make a delicious and socially acceptable evening meal.
It soon became apparent that the only point keeping your home from being featured as the what-to-avoid segment on the next episode of Clean House was that everyone, everyone, pitch in and clean. And even if a sharing of household tasks did not exist before the lockdown, one was certainly needed now.
But the division of household labor needs to extend beyond pandemics.
Research suggests that getting kids to do chores isn’t just a great way to avoid cleaning the litter box yourself. It’s actually good for your children. Not only does it develop empathy, it creates an awareness of their personal surroundings, sets the tone for a positive work ethic, and makes them feel like real team members in their own family. Children who feel that sort of positive connection to the family tend to make better choices through childhood, adolescence, and beyond.
To be clear, they will fight you on it. Some of the funniest quotes online are by frustrated, just-trying-to-get-their-kids-to-finish-their-chores parents, such as, “My 9-year-old was just told it was his turn to empty the dishwasher. Please keep us in your prayers.” But if you can remember that the main goal is actually the chore — not how quickly it got done or how pretty the house looked after completion — then a lot of that anxiety over how smoothly the process went will evaporate. You have to “remind” your child six, seven, eight times? That’s okay, as long as on that eighth time the chore was completed. And while it might feel easier, and certainly in the short run less frustrating, to cave in and do it yourself, don’t. That will serve no one, especially not your child. Remember that if you do end up doing it yourself, it will require more than eight reminders the next time; they will simply wait you out through 80 to 90 chore-nudgings until you cave again.
Keep your eye on the finished chore and not the path that got you there. Heap praise on the little ones when they finally complete their task, and sweep up any spillage later when they are not looking.
Experts agree that monetary rewards tied to chore completion, such as an allowance, should be used sparingly, if at all. Remember that a stranger might mow your lawn for $50, but it won’t make them a member of your family, and paying your child to clean out the kitty litter doesn’t really fit with the whole “we are all in this together” philosophy. No one pays the grown-ups for taking out the trash; it is just what they do to keep the house clean (and odor free) for the rest of the family. Children need to contribute at that same base level in order for the full benefits of chore-dom to be reaped.
When chores are assigned, be very specific about what is expected. “Someone needs to help me clean the kitchen” is not likely to produce the desired result and is clearly not as helpful as, “Sweetie, wipe off the table with the orange cloth that is next to the sink — wet it a little bit first — and please be sure to get that area where your little brother threw his animal crackers, and then, when you are done, rinse it out and return the cloth to the sink.” Overkill? Perhaps. More effective than vague requests? Absolutely.
And since the goal is the completion of the chore itself, it is actually never too early to give your child a task that serves the entire family. Remind yourself that perfection is not required. If you want to get your house painted or your kitchen rewired, you should call a professional and have it done correctly. If you want to make your 2-year-old feel like she is part of “team family,” ask her to put the dirty clothes in the hamper and then pick up the fallen socks later.
Some families like to use a “chore chart,” a posted document that lists everybody’s duties. It is currently the rage on several parenting sites, leading father and comedian Simon Holland to observe, “No one is full of more false hope than a parent with a new chore chart.” But if that kind of visual aid helps, then by all means, color-code and columnize your heart out. Make a chore chart for either the day or the week — more than that and you could end up with a mural that takes up your entire living room. Draw four columns. The first should contain a list of all the chores that need to be completed; the second, the name of the family member who will be completing the chore; the third should show the time at which the task needs to be completed; and the fourth is the checkoff or rewards column noting when that task is completed.
If making the chore chart seems like just one more chore, skip it. One of the most popular memes online a few months ago, written when we were actually still sending our kids off to school, was, “I just dry shampoo’d and febreeze’d my kids on the way out of the door, so no, I’m not really interested in your family’s morning chore chart, Debbie.”
You can still institute a schedule and expectations without documentation by using the time-honored tradition favored long before chore charts were a thing: word of mouth. But whether you choose written communication or oral lore, think about the ages of your children and what might realistically be expected. And no, do not put the rewiring of your kitchen in the hands of your 13-year-old, no matter how much he begs. The following are just a few examples:
* 3 years old: feed the pets (please follow up behind them when they are not looking as Fido is going to be very upset if his food bowl is only halfway filled), light dusting of nonbreakables, picking up laundry to go in the hamper;
* 4-5 years old: collect the mail, empty the indoor wastebaskets, bring in the paper, pair up clean socks, clear the table (unless it was set with your grandmother’s heirloom china);
* 6-7 years old: sort the laundry, empty the dishwasher, set the table (if they pick orange stripped napkins to go with the pink paisley place mats, just go with it), water plants, sweep, wipe off counters and sinks;
* 8-9 years old: help unload and put away groceries, fold laundry, make a simple breakfast (think pouring cereal and milk for younger siblings and self), chop vegetables (with supervision), walk the dog;
* 10 years and older: limited babysitting of younger siblings, clean counters and appliances in kitchen, clean sinks and toilet in bathroom, strip beds and remake the beds (with help, and don’t we all need help with those bottom sheets), clean all windows, vacuum, make simple meals for self and others, goad younger children into doing their chores.
When everyone knows the expectations, contributes to the household’s greater well-being, and works as a team, the family becomes closer, the children stronger, and chore time ceases to be quite such a chore.