The importance of chores for kids


When’s the last time you asked your child to do a chore? And when’s the last time your child ignored the command, put it off or complained? Every parent has been there: wanting your child to help out around the house only to re-evaluate “the ask” because that the task would go quicker and with less hassle if we did it ourselves. But when we decide to skip assigning a chore to our child, what are we really doing?

According to the experts at The Center for Parenting Education, “Doing chores gives kids a chance to give back to their parents,” and it “makes kids see themselves as important family contributors.” Chores themselves force children to make mature judgments, see the bigger picture, become aware of others’ perspectives and needs and to understand impulse control delayed gratification—all things that will help them succeed in school and with life.

Research indicates that children who have a defined set of chores or responsibilities at home have higher self esteem, are more responsible and are better able to deal with frustration. And science says chores contribute to even more than that. Researchers at Florida State University found that mindfully washing dishes by hand (i.e., taking the time to smell the liquid soap, touching the dishes and feeling the warm water, etc.), lowers levels of nervousness by 27 percent. Additionally, Australian researchers found that a chemical released in fresh cut grass makes people feel more relaxed and joyful. (A wonderful reason for your adolescent child to push or ride the mower.) Even morning bed making has been tied to health effects, such as better productivity and stronger skills at sticking to a budget, according to the book The Power of Habit: What We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. And chores can contribute to fitness too. A article reported that 30 minutes of raking leaves burns 225 calories (the same amount of calories that 37 minutes of ice skating burns) and that 30 minutes of vacuuming burns 90 calories (the same amount as 15 minutes of kick-boxing). Even chopping, grating and lifting dishes in out of the oven—preparing supper—burns 80 calories (the same as nine minutes of vigorous tennis).

You could turn on some lively music and turn the chores into a game. According to Barbara Coloroso, in Kids Are Worth It!: Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline, a parent’s attitude about chores affect the child’s attitude about chores. In other words, if you grumble about having to clean the kitchen after cooking dinner, your child may assume the same negative attitude about his or her chores. If parents “do chores with a sense of commitment, patience and humor, our children will have a model to do likewise,” Coloroso writes.

She says it also helps if chores are started at a young age and are age-appropriate. For example, by age 3, a child should be capable of pulling up the sheet on the bed, placing napkins on the table or helping to sort the laundry (after all, by 3 most kids know their colors). Coloroso says that the size of the task doesn’t matter so much as the responsibility associated with the task does. Chores are a way to make your child feel like an important contributor, a necessary member of the household.

Professor Elizabeth Crary teaches parents the same lessons in her well-regarded book Pick Up Your Socks…and Other Skills Growing Children Need!: A Practical Guide to Raising Responsible Children. Crary tackles everything from teaching toddlers to pick up socks to teenage peer pressure by using concrete examples, step-by-step instructions and consequences based on developmental stages and learning styles.  

Crary points out that children are more cooperative and are more willing to accept responsibility for things they helped choose. Parents can come up with a list of things that could be done by the child and then ask the child which one(s) she or he would like to be responsible for and on what basis. For example, a working parent may say to a 3 or 4 year old, “My job is to go to work, and then come home to make dinner and do the dishes. In the evening, the cat needs to be fed and the toys need to be picked up. Which of these would you like to do every day? That will be your job.”  

As to whether or not your child gets paid for the job, much research and opinion has gone into the pros and cons of allowance and if it should be tied to work. Here’s the basic summary: Some parents and experts think allowance is a just reward for a job well done (making allowance dock-able if the job isn’t well done). Suze Orman, for example, said, “I'm a big advocate of a work-for-pay setup rather than an allowance that isn't attached to chores – it's a great way to impart the value of money to your children.” But some parents and experts believe chores and money should be decoupled. Chores are necessary because each member of a household needs to contribute. What both camps agree on is that consequences to be set and understood before they are needed. What happens to your child if a chore is not done? Does she lose a privilege, such as a teenager who is now not permitted to drive the parent’s car on Friday night? Does he lose part of the weekly allowance? This should be something parent and child agree on when chores are first assigned and the consequence should be age appropriate and somewhat meaningful.