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How to introduce children to chores

Little boy washing dishes
Credit: iStock.com/SolStock

Doing household chores is one of life’s realities and it’s a lesson we can teach our children from a young age.

There can’t be many people in the world who claim to love doing chores but our children see their parents doing menial tasks several times a day and many of them let parents know they’d like to help out.

It could mean simple tasks such as picking up toys from the floor or feeding the family pet. There will be an age-appropriate task you could ask your child to do on a daily basis that will instil in them a strong sense of helping the family.

Clinical psychologist and author of The Bonsai Child, Dr Judith Locke says it doesn’t take much effort for parents to simply have their child get involved in carrying out basic jobs, whether it be in the garden or inside the home.

“Your first step is getting your child involved in what you’re doing. The next step is giving them individual responsibility, for example, giving dry food to dogs.  That’s a very simple task most young children can handle because, all they need to do is open the container and put a cup of the food into the dog bowl,” Dr Locke says.

“There are many essential jobs around the house that children can do, such as gathering cutlery and bringing it to the table. In most families, the child would have observed their parents doing various jobs around dinner time, so there’s a chance they’d be keen to help out and do it themselves before too long.

“When it comes to planning what particular chores your child could be doing, it really depends on the family circumstances.

“For example, helping wash or dry dishes could be a great chore for some children but that will often depend on the height of the sink. But it’s very important that parents don’t underestimate what kids are capable of. 

“You might think your child can’t do a particular job around the house but, in fact, they are absolutely capable and are usually very eager to help you.”

In the early years, children want to be independent; their favourite phrase is ‘I do it myself’ and ‘I do that! Don’t help me.’ They’re so keen to be independent. So the best way to tap into that is by giving them chores to do and encourage them by telling them it’s a ‘big boy or big girl’ activity.
Dr Judith Locke

Set realisitic expectations about chores

Some parents might be tempted to make sure the chores their child is doing are enjoyable or even fun. But Dr Locke says nobody really thinks chores are fun so it’s best to just tell your child that chores are a “job”.

“If you try to tell your child that chores are fun, you’ll be setting up an unrealistic expectation of how ‘fun’ it is. Of course, it’s easier to get a child in the bath if the bath is fun but if you’re only getting them to comply with you based on the amusement of the activity, you’re setting yourself up for a challenge when you’re asking them to do things that aren’t fun,” Dr Locke says.

“In the early years, children want to be independent; their favourite phrase is ‘I do it myself’ and ‘I do that! Don’t help me.’ They’re so keen to be independent. So the best way to tap into that is by giving them chores to do and encourage them by telling them it’s a ‘big boy or big girl’ activity.

“By giving them jobs to do you’re simply tapping into what they want to do. Just remember that whatever job you decide to give them, it doesn’t have to be fun, it just needs to make them feel like they’re more in control and independent and also contributing to the family.”

Rewards don't have to be materialistic

It might be tempting to give your child a special treat or a reward for helping you. Dr Locke believes this could be a good idea, depending on the child. However, the reward doesn’t necessarily have to be materialistic.

“At some stage, as the child is older, you could give them an allowance for helping around the house but in the early years it’s a good idea to link rights to responsibility. For example, you could say, ‘Okay, now you’ve done your jobs, you can watch TV’.”

“And there’s no need to actually call it a ‘chore’ in the early years. Depending on what age your child starts doing jobs around the house, ideally around the age of three, it’s best if you just talk about helping. Tell them, ‘We all help each other’. 

“The word chores is fine, but it’s a good idea to tell them that it’s ‘team work’ and helping the family. You could say, ‘I’m cooking dinner so you could help by setting the table'.”

Introduce chores early

Dr Locke believes if parents don’t give a child little jobs to do when they are young, by the time their child is aged ten they might find it difficult to convince them to do any chore, unless they get a reward or payment.

“If you suddenly make their life tougher with no benefits, they might be reluctant to do the job you’ve asked them to do. I think it takes a triple somersault of parenting to introduce chores at a later stage without involving payment!

“But regardless of what age you ask your child to help around the house, it’s best to just call it ‘helping out.”

And what about the quality of the work that the child carries out? Is there any reason to expect a job well done? Dr Locke says it’s important to let them know you’re thankful that they are helping.

“It’s also important for parents to remember that they need to drop their standards for this to work. Don’t expect that your child is going to be setting the table as though it were a restaurant!  Or that if they help make the bed, that the pillows look perfect. Just the fact that they’re helping you is a good thing.”