As a parent I have found the management of household chores to be a chore. When my children are supposed to clear the dinner table or clean their rooms, they need to be reminded again and again. In turn, they view these reminders as nagging and tend to resist the chores even more. When I asked my youngest why he didn’t do his chores immediately, he countered, “You’re the parent, why don’t you do them?”
It’s true: I didn’t always like the chores my parents told me to do. I can’t remember, though, ever questioning the need to pitch in. I’d thought some things were obvious. Obviously I have some communicating to do.
My comments have been met with much rolling of the eyes. But Rome was not built in a day.
My wife and I mainly use a weekly job list on the fridge to manage chores and at times even demonstrate how a chore should be done. While the lists and modeling have provided clarity, they have not always supplied motivation.
In search of the latter, I contacted other parents—both friends and family—about their experiences with chores. Here’s a summary of advice taken from these conversations, as well as from other parenting resources:
1. View chores as a type of training that will help your children when they are out of the house. Chores teach children important life skills and the responsibility kids will need to maintain a household and keep a job. One friend emphasized that this training is a “process,” one that “takes a lot of repetition and sometimes develops slowly.” Consequently we should be OK with the finished product, even “if it’s not done perfectly.”
2. There is no ideal “chore system.” Adapt chores to your children’s ages and characters. The Internet abounds with chore charts and other resources. The best thing to do, though, is to be clear and consistent in your expectations. The worst is to do your children’s chores yourself, even if it avoids a lot of bother. Otherwise children only learn to expect that you will complete their chores!
3. Chores can teach children to enjoy life’s gifts. When one of my brothers was in high school, Mom gave him $40 to buy groceries at the farmers’ market. He relished the responsibility and especially the chance to enjoy the market, have a coffee, and watch people. To this day, my brother considers a trip to the market a highlight of his week.
4. Avoid constant reminders, which will be viewed as nagging, particularly by teens. Patricia Sprinkle, author of Children Who Do Too Little, recommends explaining a chore once and then imposing a consequence if it isn’t completed. For younger kids, toys that are continually left out could get gobbled up for a day by a mysterious toy monster; for teens, a refusal to clean up laundry could mean their clothes don’t get washed that week. Patricia Sprinkle recommends, however, that the child agree on the fairness of any consequence.
5. “It’s important to get our hands dirty.” So argued one of my colleagues when we both realized we enjoyed mowing the lawn and washing the car—chores we learned from our fathers. Even in the suburbs we can still teach our children the sense of accomplishment attached to manual work. At the same time, don’t hesitate to present chores as an equal-opportunity moment; that is, both girls and boys should learn how to polish the car . . . and how to clean behind the toilet.
6. Try not to tie household chores to an allowance. Another friend summed up this sentiment when commenting on housecleaning at her place: “No one gets paid for this—it’s the price of living.” (That said, each parent I spoke with had different views on allowances as well as payment for special jobs above and beyond regular chores.)
Amid these discussions I realized that I have had an unexpressed ideal for chores: that my children would do them out of a sense of gratitude for having a home, food on the table, and clothes on their backs. When I’ve said as much to them recently, my comments have been met with much rolling of the eyes. But Rome was not built in a day, nor a household. In that light I have a great appreciation for chores, for the patience they require, and for the hopeful vision they offer for our children’s future.