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Getting children to do chores is difficult no matter how many kids you have unless you are raising them in an Indigenous community in Mexico where kids as young as 1 assist at home and by ages 6 to 8 initiate helping activities. They do chores without being asked, something that doesn’t typically seem to happen in more cosmopolitan environments.
In most cultures, parents are more likely to have to remind, prod, and insist that children do their chores. Chores should not be optional or negotiable regardless of where you live. Ignore stalling tactics—”I’ll do it later,” or “It’s not fair,” or “I have too much homework.” Some parents will tell you it’s quicker, more efficient, and easier to give in to a protesting child and do the tasks themselves, particularly with very young children when you may have to redo their “job.”
Perhaps it is, but the science says it’s not wiser if you want to raise kids who become successful, competent adults. It could be parents are at fault, making the excuses and stepping in to do their children’s chores because of overload in its many forms—assignments, practices, rehearsals, or activities that will add to their college-bound resume.
However, children’s chores have wide-ranging value. The research emphasizes that chores are stepping stones and learning tools. They help children gain confidence, build resilience, and become independent as they get older. Pitching in at home also encourages responsibility, a sense of teamwork, and a work ethic much needed later in life.
Put Your Toddler to Work
As in Mayan families, starting chores young carries the most benefits for children. University of Minnesota’s Marty Rossmann, emeritus associate professor of family education, “determined that the best predictor of young adults’ success in their mid-20s was that they participated in household tasks when they were 3 or 4. However, if they did not begin participating until they were 15 or 16, the participation backfired and those subjects were less ‘successful.’” It seems kids are most likely to learn responsibility from doing household tasks if they begin doing chores at a young age.
As your child masters loading the dishwasher or gathering the laundry, he can do the job increasingly on his own. Seemingly insignificant chores like setting the table or folding laundry are tiny building blocks that help shape eventual independence.
Started early, chores become habits, meaning less begging for parents and less whining from children. From the time a child is old enough to follow simple instructions, you can begin to assign jobs—picking up toys, putting clothes in the hamper, feeding the fish or a pet. Your child will begin to feel part of “the team.” Initially consider doing some jobs together, like preparing dinner or housecleaning.
Young children are natural helpers; they want to please. Take advantage of their enthusiasm and willingness. Accept that how young children do chores won’t be perfect, but over time they will get better at washing lettuce or mopping the floor.
Keep Older Children on Task
The research remains strong on outcomes for children who help with household tasks, especially if they started doing chores as toddlers or in early school grades.
For a study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, researchers questioned almost 10,000 elementary school–age children on pitching in at home. Those who were given chores in kindergarten showed clear advantages by third grade: “performing chores in early elementary school was associated with later development of self-competence, prosocial behavior, and self-efficacy.” When the regular chore-doers were compared with children who rarely helped out at home, the study found, the chore-doers scored higher on self-reported measures of prosocial, academic ability, peer relationships, and life satisfaction.
Still not convinced children need to do work around the house? A wide-ranging 75-year Harvard study concluded that children who do chores are more successful as adults. They are successful because they gained a work ethic by doing chores at home, according to the analysis.
As noted in Inc., in the experiences of the 724 high-achievers who were part of the study, including then-future President Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, the Watergate-era editor of The Washington Post, there’s a consensus on how you develop a work ethic that people will carry with them through life. Have them do chores as a child.
Helping Doesn’t Help Your Child
Sure, when your 5-year-old folds the towels or cleans the kitchen counter, the result may not be as pristine as you hoped. However, when you do children’s chores, whatever their age, you rob them of feelings of being needed and able to accomplish tasks on their own.
Accept that how children do chores won’t be perfect, but they will get better. With each accomplishment, recognize your child’s participation and contribution to family life. Be deliberate in seeking your children’s help. Doing your child’s chores may win a “Thanks, Mom/Dad,” but taking over has no lasting value. Be persistent and follow through. By letting your kids do their share, you’ll be helping them do their own heavy lifting later.