By the time children are about seven years old, most parents have begun to think, “It’s about time she did a little work around here!” and the battles begin. “When are you going to feed the dog?” “That garbage needs to be taken out right now!” “Honey, how many times do I need to ask you to make your bed!”
It’s good to expect children to take part in the work of the household. Children are quite capable, and feel a lot of pride in a job well done. But, like us, they acquire feelings about the jobs they’re expected to do. And when those feelings are negative, children can drain a lot of their parents’ emotional capital on the way to completing their household jobs.
So how can parents set it up so that children do take responsibility for the work of the household? I think there are two main keys to keeping the drudgery out of chores for parents and for children.
All work is worthy work
Our customary attitudes about household jobs can create strong allergies to chores. Because of generations of housework being done mostly by women who were underappreciated and certainly underpaid, feelings that don’t have anything to do with the actual work of cleaning or taking out the garbage get passed on to us through the generations.
Simple jobs have their simple joys: the warmth of the suds in the dishpan and the sight of a happily feasting dog, for instance. But inherited attitudes make these jobs feel like work that isn’t worth an intelligent person’s attention. So no wonder that, when we ask our children to do those jobs, they don’t respond well. Our attitude is contagious, and children catch it as soon as it becomes “their” job. We parents need to do our best to respect ourselves as we do the work of the household. We need to do our best to notice the rewards of the jobs we do. The jobs we do are necessary. Intelligent people do them. They are worth doing well. They are worth our attention.
Do the work together
Part of the problem with chores is that as we grew up, we were made to do our chores alone. So without thinking, we expect our children to do their chores alone, and on our time schedule.
Children aren’t designed for solitary work. They’re designed for fun, for collaboration, and for being noticed. They’re designed for absorbing your presence as you notice their skills and their accomplishments. Watch your four-year-old jump from the arm of the sofa into the middle of the living room carpet again and again while company is over. Watch a seven-year-old race a friend to the end of the street, and turn around to see if you noticed how fast they both went. Your child is showing you that there’s plenty of energy for tasks when they’re fun, when the child has choice about the timing, and when someone is there to see them as they do it. Praise is less important than simply being seen and acknowledged.
So getting jobs done together works much better than sentencing children to solitary work. Rather than, “Please take out the garbage,” try, “Can you grab one end of this sack? It’s really heavy!” and opening a conversation about what might be in there. Getting pairs of family members to tackle tasks together, or having one ten-minute period when everyone does something that needs to be done in the household can keep the feelings of isolation from settling in and turning jobs into drudgery.
Connect, then work
When a child has already caught the “this job is no fun” infection, the remedy can be a short Special Time to strengthen her sense of connection. None of us work well when we feel isolated or unseen. Special Time gives a child the time and the framework in which he or she will be seen, no matter what the choice of things to do.
So around of Special Time can sometimes help a child to tackle an expected job without feeling like it’s a burden. A parent’s story below illustrates how this works.
Lead your family
When children see that the family is working together toward a goal, or working together to make life better for one or more members, they are much better able to understand that doing the work of the household is a form of power. They see that their work contributes to the good of all, that they are appreciated, and that they make life better when they pitch in.
So nightly or weekly Family Meetings, in which parents share their thoughts about the good things that happened in the last week, and the challenges in the coming week, can help children understand their parents’ thinking. It gives them a place to share their own. They see that the family is a group that has direction and leadership. They see that their voices are heard, as ideas are sought on how to handle Dad’s business trip and the help Mom will need, or the fact that Grandma needs her yard tended on Saturday, while several other things need doing too. They feel part of a larger whole. They learn that the jobs aren’t isolated tasks that have to be done by isolated people. They participate in solving problems and can take pride in their contributions.
I know a family that expects each member to say one thing they appreciated about someone else each night at dinner, or to say one thing that went well and one thing that didn’t go well for them that day. The children really come through for each other and for their parents at times during these rounds of appreciations or checking in. The fact that little things are noticed by all helps the children’s perspective on their own importance.
Here’s how children’s attitudes can change
Special Time isn’t guaranteed to turn your child into an instant cleaner-upper! Nothing can promise that result. But it may help you move from trudging through your days separately into more frequent mutual cooperation. Here’s the experience of one parent whose daughter was willing to try a cleanup activity she’d always refused, after a good Special Time.
“It’s funny how Special Time helps not just your kid feel more connected with you, it also helps you feel more connected with your kid. One afternoon when I was feeling somewhat down, my ten-year-old daughter asked me for some Special Time. She wanted to wrestle with me. I wasn’t quite ready to get out of my shell, but I went ahead and wrestled with her. She was terrific. We both had a great time wrestling. She then decided that I was a bouncing machine and she bounced on top of me. Next, she decided I was a rolling machine and she rolled on top of me. And, mind you, she was eighty-six pounds then, so that’s a lot of weight! It was hard to deal with all that sheer physical force and power. She was relentless and didn’t realize the strength of her own body. But it was so much fun. We laughed and laughed and laughed. And at the end of it, I was out of my shell and she had had a great time connecting with me.
I had a pile of chores to do that afternoon, including scooping a whole bunch of dog poop from the backyard and getting laundry done. For the first time ever, my daughter came with me to the backyard to help me clean up all the poop. She has a strong sense of smell, so this job was something that had always disgusted her, but she was able to overcome her distaste for it and actually helped me do it. I showed her just how to do it to make it go smoothly. And she did it!
Right after that, she went on to help me with even more chores. We folded all the laundry together, staying connected the whole time. I attributed all of this cooperation to the Special Time we had together!”
—a mother in Sunnyvale, California