Years ago my two older kids, about seven and nine at the time, were getting ready to wash the floor. A neighbor girl knocked at the door asking to play. When my son told her he was going to wash the floor first she begged to be included. Although this girl had more monetary advantages than my children could have imagined, she was entranced. She’d never seen kids doing chores, let alone kids in charge of cleaning a floor.
She pitched right in as they scooted furniture out of the way, then swept. I gave them a bucket of slightly soapy water and they went to work with rags, scooting across the wet floor on their knees like crabs, giggling as the floor got wetter and their scooting became sloshy sliding. Their method didn’t matter to me. I was holding the baby and diverting the toddler while peeling potatoes and finishing up a work-related call. I was pretty sure the floor would be somewhat cleaner when they were done. They dried it with towels, moved the furniture back with appropriate grunting and groaning, then slumped on the couch. They looked entirely relaxed, as people do when satisfied with a job well done. When I got off the phone I came in to thank them. They were admiring how the floor caught the light and cautioning our toddler to keep his sippy cup on the table.
After that day the neighbor girl asked if she could do chores every time she came over. It seemed funny at the time, but I think now that she recognized she’d been missing the sense of accomplishment and camaraderie found in working together.
The floors aren’t spotless in my house. The bathrooms are also far from perfect. But I’m totally at peace with this. That’s because my kids handle much of the cleaning around here. I’m happy to do the cooking (or more truthfully I have control issues about what goes into the food my family eats). And I don’t mind being the family laundry wench, although I know kids are capable of handling their own laundering tasks. But in the spirit of “we’re all in this together” I’ve expected my kids to handle a sizeable share of household (and farm) work ever since they were small. I still do.
Actually, starting young is the key. When toddlers beg to help fold laundry or wash the car with us it’s easier to send them off to play so we can get the job done ourselves. But this is exactly the time to foster a child’s natural helpfulness.
It’s also a powerful way to promote positive development in all sorts of areas. Research shows that children who participate in household tasks are more likely to succeed in adulthood.
Twenty years of data analyzed by professor Marty Rossmann at the University of Minnesota found that the best predictor of success in young adulthood on measures related to education completion, meeting career goals, and maintaining good relationships with family and friends was whether they had begun doing chores in the preschool years. This association did not hold up when young people did not begin helping out around the house until the mid-teen years. Even I.Q. scores had a weaker correlation with success than giving children early responsibilities.
Forty-five years of data from the Glueck Study of inner-city males (part of the longer-running Harvard Grant Study) found that willingness and ability to work in childhood — shown by holding part-time jobs, participating in household chores, or taking part in school clubs or sports — was a stronger predictor of adult mental health than factors such as social class or family problems.
The 2019 study “Associations Between Household Chores and Childhood Self-Competency” of nearly 10,000 U.S. children entering kindergarten in 2010/2011 assessed how regularly they participated in household chores. These same children were assessed again when they reached third grade for prosocial behavior, prosocial behavior, academics, and life satisfaction. Researchers concluded, “The frequency of chores in kindergarten was positively associated with a child’s perception of social, academic, and life satisfaction competencies in the third grade, independent of sex, family income, and parent education… Compared with children who regularly performed chores, children who rarely performed chores had greater odds of scoring in the bottom quintile on self-reported prosocial, academic ability, peer relationship, and life satisfaction scores.”
A small, more recent 2022 study, “Executive functions and household chores: Does engagement in chores predict children’s cognition?” of five to thirteen-year-old children affirms that both self-care chores (such as making one’s own snack) and family-care chores (such as helping make a family meal) significantly predicted improved executive functioning including working memory, flexible thinking, problem solving, follow-through, and self-control.
We tend to spend a lot on activities and products for our children assuming this enriches their lives but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.
Young children clamor to be included. When a preschooler begs to help prepare dinner, he doesn’t want to play with cooking toys, he wants to participate in the real work that’s taking place. It slows us down to let him cut fresh mushrooms with a butter knife (and restraint to avoid criticizing or re-cutting), but a child recognizes his contribution toward dinner. He’s also more likely to eat it.
Movement and Hands-on Experience
Helping out engages young children in activities that promote movement-cued development. This includes large motor activities like digging in the garden, carrying a watering can, putting away groceries, and sweeping with a broom. It also includes fine motor tasks like using a screwdriver and tearing lettuce for a salad.
Childhood is a period of major neuroplasticity, when learning actually changes the brain’s functional anatomy. Hands-on experiences are particularly vital at this time. In fact, the child who regularly engages with manipulatives (arranging veggies on a platter, setting the table, sorting socks) and applies real-world math (measuring and pouring coffee beans in the grinder, taking things apart and putting them together, following recipes) has a strong foundation of representational experience, which enables better understanding of abstract mathematical concepts when they are introduced later. These movement-based tasks are also closely linked to the brain development necessary for reading and writing. (Find out more about this in Sally Goddard Blythe’s wonderful book, The Well Balanced Child: Movement and Early Learning.)
Growing as a Person and a Family
Children accustomed to flashy toys and rapidly changing screen images may become so wired to this overstimulation that without it they’re bored. The slower pace of yard and household tasks can be an important antidote, especially when we’re willing to go at a child’s pace. Young children tend to balk when they’re hurried or left out. They show us, stubbornly and often loudly, that there’s nothing more important to them than the here and now. So whenever possible, slow down so you can make working together enjoyable. Letting a small child spread peanut butter, cut sandwiches, and pour milk into cups from a small pitcher affirms the value of the present moment. It also makes an ordinary lunch into a tea party.
The benefits don’t end for older children. Hands-on experience in all sorts of tasks and hobbies promotes learning, builds character, and helps to form the basis of our future selves. When neurologist Frank R. Wilson interviewed high achievers he found many credited their expertise to attributes learned through hands-on activities. In his book, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, Wilson emphasizes that resourcefulness and self-definition arise from the use of our hands more than from the dictates of our educational system.
In a way, doing tasks together puts parent and child on more even ground. So often we parents are rushing to schlep our kids to practice or lessons or other kid-oriented events, making them the pivot around which a family’s activities revolve. Taking part in regular tasks together, even if we’re pulling weeds on opposite sides of the garden, affirms the sort of mutuality that advertisers tell us is only found in pricey vacations. Of course time afterwards for a nice game of hoops and some cold lemonade builds bonds too.
As our children grow, doing tasks together can continue to strengthen our relationships. Moments of meaningful interaction happen easily when washing dishes, folding laundry, fixing the car, or walking the dog together. Working on shared chores helps a child’s contemplative side emerge, prompting discussions that may never have happened otherwise. This is true between parent and child as well as between siblings. I remember my mother bemoaning the arrival of our dishwasher because we no longer took turns washing and drying, ending a relaxed half hour of post-dinner conversation each evening.
It’s easy to make these activities a tradition. Teenagers who have always helped out when a parent puts on snow tires, cleans out the basement for a yearly garage sale, or cans pickles may grumble when asked, but chances are they’d feel excluded if left out too. In part, who we are is defined by what we do. Growing up with hands-on lessons in taking initiative, practicing cooperation, and working towards a goal helps to shape character. And it transforms pickle-making from drudgery to an important family ritual.
This is a biggie in the “you’ll thank me later” department because kids who are able to delay gratification are much more likely to do well as they grow up.
We model delayed gratification each time we choose to work for a later or larger goal. This includes saving, making do, and making it ourselves. We demonstrate it when the whole family pitches in to rake a neighbor’s leaves while she’s recovering from a broken hip. We teach it when we let a child see that if he doesn’t do the laundry when it’s his turn, there won’t be a clean team shirt to wear to the game. And we show that it’s expected every time our kids pitch in with the ordinary jobs necessary to run a household.
This may seem negative, particularly when popular culture constantly screams “have it now” and “get what you want.” But there are enormous positives. Our children become familiar with the pleasures of anticipation, which multiplies the eventual delight when a goal is reached. They also begin to internalize the ability to delay gratification.
This is pivotal for success. Multiple studies (cited in Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence) found that children who were able to defer gratification grew into teens and young adults who were more socially competent, better able to deal with frustration, more dependable, reached higher educational attainments, and were effectively able to make and reach long-term goals. Delayed gratification is also related to impulse control. Research shows that a child’s ability to control his or her impulses at an early age is predictive of success even decades later as a healthy, financially stable, and positive member of the community.
Expecting children and teens to take an active part in running a household gives them plenty of opportunity to gain the positive coping skills that help them control their impulses and delay gratification. It may seem like returning to the old adage, work first, play later, but the benefits can be extraordinary.
Regular tasks allow our children to see for themselves how the world works. They grasp principles of science and math as a seed becomes a tree, as boards are transformed into bookshelves, as flour and yeast turn into bread. They develop traits such as patience. They are motivated to apply what they’re learning to more challenging endeavors of their own. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to know what it takes to grow the tomatoes, make the sauce, and prepare the beans for tonight’s enchiladas. But more importantly, as our children become proficient at the jobs necessary to sustain their families, they also see themselves as capable. That perception transfers across all endeavors.
There’s no denying that children who participate pick up useful skills. They see that maintenance is easier than waiting till the car or laptop breaks. They can set the table, toss a salad, make a sandwich, and boil pasta. Not right away, but eventually. While they are making real contributions to running the household they’re actively learning how to cook, launder, clean, make repairs, maintain a vehicle, budget expenses, and handle other tasks which are essential for an independent life once they’re adults. Wonderful lessons in cause and effect are reinforced when children complete work and benefit from the results. Seeing oneself as an agent of useful change, priceless.
They also learn from the examples we show them, such as how to handle pressure and ways to learn from mistakes. Whether we’re four or 40, gaining competency feels good. It doesn’t hurt to give credit where it’s due. So if your child has been busy chopping mangoes, strawberries, and pineapple into tasty chunks, try renaming the result “Sophie’s Special Fruit Salad” for extra reinforcement.
When we stack firewood to prepare for the upcoming winter, make a gift to celebrate a friend’s good news, or change a favorite recipe to accommodate Grandpa’s diabetes, our efforts have purpose and value. As our children participate along with us, they feel the intrinsic satisfaction of doing something that has meaning.
So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct. But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but kindle motivation.
From the earliest time our species lived on planet Earth, young children benefitted from the purposeful learning that comes when adults around them are engaged in practical activities — welcoming a child’s questions and eagerness to be included as entirely natural parts of growing up. It acknowledges that these essential skills are necessary for maintaining and belonging in a community.
Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges. If we pay attention, we see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play.
I’m not fond of the word “chores.” It implies that kids and adults have tasks that are set apart from the rest of our lives. Making work around the house and yard a regular part of our lives together seems more natural.
I think it’s valuable to get work done together as much as possible. For me, the simplest way to respond to grumbling has always been, “that’s just how we do it in our family,” without engaging in arguments on the topic. And of course balance is essential. Children and teens (well, all of us) need time for daydreaming, play, socializing, relaxation, projects, and all of life’s other joys.
My kids have their own chores, which they sometimes rotate. They haven’t always done them well or on time by any means. Accepting a floor as clean as a child will get it is part of having children participate. And I’m pretty laid back about things like clean bedrooms. (I remind them we try to adhere to the Firefighter Rule: Could emergency workers navigate a bedroom if necessary?) I understand that kids put less energy into tasks that don’t seem to have much importance. They recognize that a clean bedroom doesn’t affect our family’s functioning, while they know for sure that cutting and stacking firewood will keep our house warm. Hence, the firewood is done right while their rooms are often just short of scandalous.
We’ve never given them an allowance, mostly because we haven’t been able to afford it. Families have counted on children throughout history for work that was reliable and essential. Today we are fortunate that we don’t have to rely on our kids to survive, but we can expect them to contribute. The tasks may not be fun or interesting but they are necessary. They demonstrate to every child that he or she is a valuable contributor to the well-being of the family. And hearing, “Thanks, we couldn’t have done it without you,” feels good too.
I’m pretty sure growing up this way has contributed to how super responsible my kids are now in their teen and young adult years. They see a pile of boxes I need to load for our food co-op and carry them, never waiting for me to ask. They gladly stop whatever they’re doing to pitch in for an hour or all day when help is needed in the garage or barn or back yard. They are incredibly capable people who are far more astute and skilled than I’ll ever be. They can milk cows, fix tractors and cars, cut and bale hay, install plumbing, make meals, diagnose a sick chicken, hang drywall, identify spiders, back up their political opinions, weld, put on a roof, well, you get the idea. Sure, they have busy social lives and enjoy keeping their faces aimed at screens just like everyone else. But they recently spent an entire weekend helping a family member pack, move, and make repairs. They worked hard and displayed nothing but their usual good cheer. After exhausting 14 hour days I asked if they’d rather have skipped this particular task. Every one of them affirmed that it was no big deal. And I heard my words come back to me, “It’s just the way we do things in our family.”
Portions of this article were excerpted from Free Range Learning.
24 thoughts on “How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities”
Yes, yes, and yes! I love everything about this. Our son helps with yard work, sweeping floors, and taking care of the dog. I’m hesitant to let him help with breakable dishes, other than clearing the table after meals, and using chemicals to clean a bathroom at his age (5). Perhaps I am being over-protective? I love the sense of “we’re all in this together.” 🙂
It’s always important to rely on your parenting intuition. John Holt, in Escape From Childhood, recommends that we let children use sharp knives at a young age and not fuss over keeping them with us even in a crowded airport, convinced that their own innate sense of wariness will keep them safe. My mother’s intuition can’t go that far. I’ll “over protect” when it feels unsafe to me. I’ve always let my kids make up their own minds about things like wearing a hat in the cold and using real tools on projects, but am overprotective when limiting unhealthy food and violent entertainment. That’s the beauty of relying on what feels right to us.
I couldn’t agree more, although sometimes our “protection” seems based off our own fears. For example, sharp knives scare me (I’m possibly the slowest food-chopper in the world), so I still cut my son’s meat for him at age five… It can be a fine line between intuition and fear. However, the last thing I want to do is cause my children to have my fears. Unhealthy foods and violence are always good things to monitor in young children. It’s beneficial to bodies and minds. I think what Holt says makes sense, because the only reasons to prevent them from using sharp things or holding their hand in crowded places means that 1) you’re afraid of something bad happening, 2) you’re installing that fear into them, and 3) you’re showing lack of trust in your child. Obviously, this is all only applies to children old enough to understand basic safety. Age 3?
But you also have your own sense of wariness to pay attention to. Sometimes even adults need to touch each other in crowded spaces.
I let my kids use sharp knives after instruction and demonstrating proficiency. I had my own pocketknife and was proficient at third grade. My 8 year old isn’t quite there yet. (Where’s your thumb? Which side is the blade? Look at your fingers!)
And letting your kids have percieved freedom in crowded places is fine; it allows them to learn a lot. BUT perception and reality are not the same thing. The kid thinks he’s on his own exploring, but mom and dad are really watching him and everything around him. (I do this a lot. Sometimes people stop and ask my kids where their parents are. The kid’s reaction varies, which we talk about later, but invariably the adult looks up, sees me watching, and then smiles and leaves. I look like the mom, so I guess that’s ok they don’t ask for ID.) An innate sense of wariness (at any age) can be dulled or turned off by distraction, deception, or something interesting to follow, and we need to teach them this too. And in the case of ignorance, the wariness might not even be there. For example, you might not know that fire ants are different from others . . .
Consider two bus stations: in a bus station in nowheresville at 2pm you allow your child to run and play and eat a dropped cookie while you read a book. But when you arrive at the station in downtownscarycity at 2am you hold the child’s sanitized hand while your other hand balances your suitcase and mace.
Very important distinctions. I think we feel these intuitively as long as we’re open to that in ourselves.
Thank you Laura! In my work with parents I’m often asked if they should pay their children for chores…and I see the deep hole they dig for themselves with this mindset. Your article is thorough and the resources you site are wise. May I include in my monthly Boys Alive! newsletter? (www.boysalive.com)
A link to it or summary of it would be great Janet. Thanks!
We don’t do an allowance for my kids, but we do “family fun dollars”. When someone helps with a chore or does it alone, he can get a fun dollar. These dollars are put into a community jar that we use for vacations and local fun. We teach them that the time they spend helping around the house frees the whole family. We all have to agree how to spend them. I love it because it allows me to be free to offer to buy everyone an extra ice cream cone or trinket toy; I’m quite frugal and this is hard for me to offer. Once we even earned enough for a very memorable helicopter ride, something I would have normally said, “No WAY!”. But since we had earned it together it was a reward and not a splurge.
We don’t do an allowance for my kids, but we do “family fun dollars”. When someone helps with a chore or does it alone, he might get a fun dollar. These dollars are put into a community jar that we use for vacations and local fun. We teach them that the time they spend helping around the house frees the whole family. We all have to agree how to spend them. I love it because it allows me to be free to offer to buy everyone an extra ice cream cone or trinket toy; I’m quite frugal and this is hard for me to offer. Once we even earned enough for a very memorable helicopter ride, something I would have normally said, “No WAY!”. But since we had earned it together it was a reward and not a splurge.
What a fun idea to boost cooperation Christina!
Loved that article! Sounds just like Montessori, where one of mine spent most of his school years. Hands on learning, responsibility to self and community, respect. And start early. My 3 yr old granddaughter, Nora, already has an apron hanging next to mine, at her insistence. Grandma needs help in the kitchen, and she’s my willing sidekick. The cycle repeats itself.
Absolutely outstanding! Such a good article.
I have enjoyed the articles and responses to them so much. This has been a nice visit. Reliving the journey back into my childhood with my mother and later using these ideas while raising my children and later now with my grandchildren. Thank you, MaryEllen
Fantastic article. Came here by way of the Carnival of Homeschooling being hosted by The Common Room blog.
I grew up with very few responsibilities and it has haunted me in so many ways, even today as a woman in her mid 40s.
I am so thankful to be married to a man who has set the bar high when it comes to chores for our kids. (Right now they’re stringing up an additonal electric fence to keep our calf in with an older steer.) Sometimes I inwardly cringe at the things he asks them to do, but that’s also my opportunity to repent of my foolish notions regarding work.
Yes! Thankyou, I am implementing jobs for and with the kids into our daily rhythm more and more.
I’m very much on board with the idea of everyone helping around the house. I get a bit stuck on what do do when I hit a wall of non-cooperation, which seems to happen 80% of the time with my 5-year old, particularly for tasks including cleaning–even just picking up his own toys. We try to make games of it and do it with him, but he just says “I don’t like doing that.” Sometimes I flip into lecture mode (“Hey, guess what, I don’t like doing it either, but it’s important to keep crap off the floor so it doesn’t get broken or hurt someone.”) He will help out with more outdoor chores, like collecting the chicken’s eggs and pulling weeds, but I am stuck on the idea that he should also help clean up his toys. I’d love some advice on managing this.
I think you are managing it just fine. Keep trying different tactics like you are already doing. Keep sticking to the underlying values: we clean up our own messes, we help our family even if we didn’t make the problem, we do things we don’t want to because it’s important, we teach you things you need to learn to become a man. Some people help because it’s innate, some people help because it’s a learned skill.
I’ve found this true of my kids and every other kid—-they tend to be eager or at least somewhat willing to participate when they can see that their efforts contribute to some greater good. Your son sees that collecting eggs and working in the garden benefit the family (and good for him, my kids are not great about pulling weeds). I’ve found that kids are more willing to pitch in on less enticing chores when it’s a group effort. I totally understand that he made the mess, he should pick it up. But in the interest of fostering cooperation, you may want to tell him that you’ll pitch in to help him because he’s such a great helper to you. You might rachet up the “cost” to him a bit as he gets older. “I’ll help you pick up your toys as soon as you deal with ____ (one category of toys).” Or “You and I can work on picking up toys after you help Mom do _____.”
One thing we did was regularly hone down the toys, donating some, putting some away so they’d have new appeal when they were brought back out (I told my kids some toys are “seasonal”), generally making the toy selection small enough that they aren’t tossed around. We never honed down as much as this mom, but it certainly shows how kids can benefit from fewer purchased playthings: https://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/02/20/the-boy-with-no-toys/
You can also teach him some tricks to prevent messes. In the restaurant industry they follow a Clean Up As You Go policy, putting each thing away as they complete a step. This would be a great self-discipline tool for anyone (I haven’t mastered it). A child may see the value of putting away a board game before getting out Legos, putting away Matchbox cars before getting out crayons. He can learn to see this as a way of maintaining some integrity, so game pieces don’t get in his Legos!
Another trick is easy container systems. Clear totes for art supplies and categories of toys, for example. One of the biggest messes in our house has been Legos. A simple solution is to make (or buy) a Lego mat. It’s a large piece of cloth (rug-sized) that has a drawstring around the whole perimeter. Kids sit and play with Legos, keeping everything on the mat. When they’re done, they pull the drawstring (they probably will need help) and the whole thing turns into a bag.
Or do as I did, make peace with a messy bedroom (following only my Firefighter Rule) but insist that in common areas of the house he clean up. He may get a clue that it’s easier to play in his room. He may not.
Overall, I think it’s important to realize he’s five. He’ll make messes, be impatient about cleaning them up, and in general be as immature as a five year old tends to be. Best of luck. Looking at my desk it’s clear I’m not great at keeping things too neat either. Guess I’m about his level of maturity when it comes to leaving stacks of books and papers right in front of me. sigh….
Thinking about it, I realize I didn’t also say that I agree, cleaning up after ourselves is part of life and a great way to learn delayed gratification. I didn’t mean by the suggestions I offered above to imply that children should not be responsible. Minimizing friction helps to ease household tensions but kids need to build the skills that come with picking up after themselves and helping out.
Sometimes I find it is just a matter of getting over that resistance and then my kids can enjoy themselves for quite some time at something they initially resisted (like picking up). We’ve been listening to Christmas music lately while picking up…or trying to funny walk the whole time or something. Once they get started, even after the music ends, they usually keep going out of their own pleasure and sense of accomplishment, no matter how much they resisted in the beginning.
One other strategy I use sometimes is to let them help me pick up my things sometimes while I pick up theirs. They are often more eager to help if they sense that they are doing something for someone else. I also think this helps to keep the focus on the household work being something that we all do together (because sometimes I leave my things around too and we all need to help get things back in order).
Lovely suggestions Katie.
Thanks for you article. I translate it in dutch and put in on my website in holland and ofcourse I refered to you . Children benefit from chores and they like it. I hope that parents in Holland will follow your idea. 🙂 Have a nice day
Drs. Sonja Kleijn
yes, I love everything you wrote. I got my son to help out by the time he was three and it’s always been part of his life. He has regular tasks and then extra stuff like today we spent two hours quietly painting a fence together -he is 14 now. It was nice.
Thanks for your article. I translate it into Dutch and put it on my website and of course, I referred it to you. Children take advantage of housework and enjoy it. I hope parents follow your idea. Visit our site:http://www.advancedacademyindore.com/
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