Children and chores: Household tasks teach kids responsibility, confidence
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Lexi and Nick Schneider, 8-year-old twins, are used to doing chores around their Grand Forks home — they’ve been doing them for half of their lives.
Nick takes out the trash and recycling, and Lexi helps with laundry, said their mom, Kristine Schneider. They both vacuum.
“They don’t always readily do their chores,” she said, “but they know it has to be done. They just know it’s expected of them.”
When the twins were about 4, Schneider posted a list of daily tasks the twins were supposed to do, such as picking up their toys and clearing their plates from the table.
She wanted to “instill responsibility and a work ethic” at a young age, she said. For each completed “job,” they earned a star on the “chore chart.”
To motivate them, she kept a basket of “prizes,” including little toys and books. If they completed their chores, they could pick a prize, she said. “I always tried to have cool stuff in the basket — nothing expensive, but things I knew they liked.”
How parents approach the idea of having kids do chores varies with each family and may be changing in American households, said Dawnita Nilles, a doctoral student in UND’s Department of Teaching and Learning.
It raises questions about what tasks, if any, children should do and whether payment or other rewards should be given.
When raising kids, some parents follow the example they grew up with, Nilles said. Others do too, but with modification. Some don’t require their kids to do chores at all.
Schneider said she “absolutely” did chores growing up.
“I don’t remember what age I started. It seems like something I was always expected to do,” she said, “but I was never compensated for it.”
Her husband, Joe, was compensated, “but not very much,” for mowing the lawn and taking out the trash, among other tasks.
Unlike parents of the past, parents today may have differnt expectations about chores, she said.
“It’s not so much that kids today (are required) to do less chores but that kids are busier. My kids are involved in more activities than I was at their age.”
Those activities also provide valuable lessons for the daughters, ages 12 and 16, whom she and her husband, Matt, are raising, she said.
“It’s just the nature of our society today. I think we’re hugely tired in our lives. There can be a sense of, ‘it’s just easier if I do it myself.’”
Parents need to consider, “Are we doing enough to teach our kids how to do what’s needed to run a household ... and the skills to do that?” she said.
“A child isn’t born knowing how to do laundry. They won’t learn it by me doing it ...”
‘Definitely a benefit’
Generally, child development experts confirm that “chores are definitely a benefit to young kids,” Nilles said. “I haven’t come across any drawbacks.”
Parents can introduce this concept of chores early, even at 16 months old, for example, “by helping them put all their blocks away,” she said.
“You can start as soon as they begin asking questions and wanting to help ... I’m a big believer in following cues from the child.”
Doing chores gives children “a sense of responsibility, of being a member of a family,” she said, “and it’s an authentic way of learning how a household runs.”
Children also gain “a sense of being a part of a team that is working in the family,” she said. “They’re learning skills they’ll need later on in life.”
As adults, they will have a basic framework for how they function in other settings, she said. “They’ll think, ‘I’m a member, and I have a responsibility for what happens here in the workforce or school.’ Everyone has a role.”
Jennifer Dame’s three daughters — Madison, 10, Nicolette, 8, and Delanee, 3 — have been doing chores since they were old enough to start putting toys away and other tasks, their mom said.
At a young age, “they love doing those kinds of things,” said Dame, Grand Forks. “They are mimicking you, and want to help.”
Her daughters are responsible for tasks such as doing dishes, putting away their laundered clothes, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms and taking out garbage, she said. “They’re in charge of taking their (clothes) hampers to the laundry. We help the 3-year-old.”
Doing such tasks “helps them realize that it’s part of teamwork.”
“I tell them, ‘we don’t hire a maid, we have children,’” she said with a laugh.
When asked about chores at home, “some of my kids’ friends say, ‘no, the maid does that,’” Dame said. “A lot of them are surprised that my kids vacuum, dust and clean bathrooms.”
She and her husband Patrick do not pay their children for doing chores, she said. “We tell them, ‘these are things we have to do to live in the house.’”
Dame is “not interested in negotiation, especially with a 3-year-old,” she said. “The kids learn it’s not going to get them anywhere. I’m up for discussion, not for negotiation.”
Prompting kids to do chores “is sometimes not that easy of a conversation, it may take a couple hours … We laid the groundwork nine years ago with the first kid, but it’s a challenge.”
Excited to help
Early on, children often exhibit a strong desire to help, Nilles said. “They want to help, and they want to learn, at a very young age. They want to be around people and doing what they’re doing.
“As long as it’s developmentally appropriate, children — even 2 years old — can help with laundry (by) sorting clothes, putting away toys, stacking their things up and bringing dishes from the table to the kitchen.
“You can make chores fun and (convey to the child) that ‘you are part of something important.’”
Among the lessons to be learned is seeing things through to completion, she said.
“It’s not as fun to put toys away, but (doing so) goes a long way to developing lifelong habits. Putting toys away completes the act of playing — that’s what you’re teaching.”
Another lesson is “that tasks have certain steps,” she said. “We say, ‘we’ve played with the toys, now the next step is putting them away.’ They learn classification and sorting — skills that become necessary as we grow up.”
With these lessons, children learn “there’s value to work, to a job well done. They have a sense of fulfillment. They’re proud of that,” she said.
“It’s a huge piece when you think about labor in life.”
Paying for chores
When their twins turned 8, Schneider agreed to give each $5 a week if they completed their chores without “whining,” she said. “I tell them, if there’s a battle, the chores still have to be done, but they will not earn the $5.”
“There’s been minimal resistance because they’re being compensated.”
In the field of child development, there’s a range of opinion about whether parents should pay children for doing chores, Nilles said.
“You want children to learn about money management, saving and budgeting, but where do they get the money to do that?”
She said that “especially for an older child (payment) can certainly be a benefit, but you also want to instill in kids that sense of family. There’s kind of a double edge.”
With children who receive an allowance that’s tied to chores, parents should emphasize, “‘these are the things you’re expected to complete,’ but they’re not paying per se for working around the house.”
But they may have extra tasks that they offer to hire the child to do, she said. “This is particularly good to teach them that their time is valuable and is worth something, and that their skills have value as well.”
Chores should change as kids age and have more skills, Nilles said. “This coincides with their need for more spending money.”
But “I don’t believe we should do a task because someone pays us for it,” she said. “You have to find a balance, like everything else in parenting.”
She also sees the benefit of children having some input on what tasks they’re going to do — a skill they could be useful later, she said. “They learn how to respectfully approach an employer and say, ‘I think I would rather do this instead of that,’ which could be an important skill.”
Doing chores gives kids “a sense that they can do it, they can do things, to take pride in their work,” Dame said. “They’ll be better prepared.
They’ll also develop humility, she said. “Everybody does it; everybody has to clean something. They’ll learn respect for those who do it.”
As far as today’s parents having kids doing fewer chores, Dame said she sees society moving to “somewhere in the middle.”
“They do a lot for their kids, but they still have kids do chores.”
Choosing chores that are appropriate according to the child’s age is important, said Dawnita Nilles, a University of North Dakota doctoral student in the teaching and learning department.
“We don’t expect a 4-year-old to fully fill a dishwasher, but they can put their own dish in there,” she said. “It’s about knowing what they’re capable of doing and matching those tasks to the child’s age.”
Nilles recommends that, initially, parents show their child how to do the task, she said. “Don’t expect the child to figure things out on their own.”
And be specific, she said. “Rather than telling them ‘clean your room,’ explain what that means and guide them through the task ... It means something different in each family.
“That’s one of the biggest mistakes I see parents make.”
If a child becomes extremely frustrated with a task, he or she is not ready to do it or needs more guidance from the parent, she said.
“If a child is giving up and walking away or quitting out of frustration, have a conversation about where that frustration is coming from.”
It’s unwise to complete the task yourself, she said. “If you finish the task for them, you undermine your ultimate goal.”
Nilles suggests that families do chores together because “it furthers that sense of community and membership in a family. And it’s a good way to get kids to work together.”
It demonstrates to kids that “we all do chores to get them done, and then we can go out and do what we want as a family.”
“The ultimate goal of a parent is raising a young person who’s going to be a productive member of society,” she said. “At the same time, you don’t want to rush it.”