One summer day, my kids were outside sweating and weeding the garden with me when a neighborhood kid came over.
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“What are you doing?” he asked, puzzled.
“Pulling weeds,” my son answered. “Want to help?”
The other kid stared at my son like a Martian and after a few stunned seconds, managed to stutter: “Why?”
I’m not sure if he was asking why they were pulling weeds or why he’d want to help, but from the look on his face he probably meant both.
I’ve mentioned several times that my kids work hard; in fact, they’re the most hard-working kids I know.
A reader of my blog recently asked how Phillip and I got our children to be that way. Do we give them chores? How old are they when they’re expected to help around the house? And do they complain about it?
Giving Kids Chores at Home
Of course, sometimes we’re flexible and decide to have a movie night instead of clean up, or a kid with a ton of homework gets a pass on chores that day. Sometimes I don’t enforce chores like I should and the kids regress a little.
But in general, they’re expected to regularly:
- Manage their own hygiene. Around age 2, they get a picture checklist of their morning routine: get dressed, put PJs in laundry, make bed, say prayer, brush hair, brush teeth. At about age 3 I wean them off of my help doing it.
- Finish one assigned household chore every day. I use a picture chart and assign the chores to kids according to their ability level, but every kid age 3 and up is on it. The chores include vacuuming, mopping, sweeping, emptying the dishwasher, sorting the recycling, and emptying bathroom trashes into the kitchen trash.
- Do their own laundry. By age 8, each kid gets his own laundry basket, knows how to operate the machines, and is expected to do it all – including folding and putting it away – on his own. Until then, they help me according to their ability level. For example, I might wash my 6-year-old’s laundry and turn it right side out, but her job is to fold and put it away.
- Pack their own school lunches. Every night, they make their lunch for the next day. Even the kindergartner. Once a week we stock categorized bins with snacks/sides to go in the lunch. All they have to do is throw some into their lunchbox and make a sandwich.
- Help clean the kitchen after dinner. We took all the parts of cleaning the kitchen and dining room and divided it among the number of able-bodied kids in the family. We wrote them on popsicle sticks and everyone randomly picks a chore. Mom and dad are floaters who help until everyone is done.
- Clean up their rooms every night. Before bed, we all move in a group to each kids’ bedroom for a quick 60-second cleanup. The older kids usually get a pass because they didn’t take out all the toys, but sometimes they pitch in anyway.
- Work in the yard. During the summer, we shoot for half an hour of outside work every weekday. We set a timer and pull weeds or pick up sticks, and then they use a kid-sized wheelbarrow to dump it in the woods.
- Generally pick up after themselves. I am absolutely not in charge of clearing the kids’ places at the table, putting their backpacks away, or hauling their bikes into the garage, and they know it. They’re still not always great at remembering to hang up their coats, but they also don’t argue when I interrupt them to go back and do it.
Do our kids complain about all the work they do? Not really.
In my 13 years of parenting I’ve noticed that kids only complain about work they see as “extra.” They don’t really fuss too much about whatever’s normal because well, that’s just the way it is.
Meaning that kids who barely lift a finger around the house will moan for 30 minutes about being asked to unload the dishwasher once a month, while their friends across the street won’t complain about a list of chores the length of their arm that they do every day. Weird, huh?
What Makes a Hard-Working Kid?
Maybe it’s partly luck and we were just given easy children, but I like to think we had at least something to do with our kids’ good work ethic.
Here are some general principles we’ve followed in our parenting that I think have made a difference.
1. Start young.
The younger they learn to work, the easier it is for you — eventually. They won’t do a great job at first, but they will when they get older, and because they’ve been doing it their whole life they’ll do it without complaint. Of course it’s not too late if your kids are older, but there will probably be a lot of complaining until the workload becomes their “new normal.”
2. Recognize their capabilities.
A 4-year-old can sort the recycling. A 3-year-old can vacuum. A 2 year-old can find his clean underwear in the laundry and put it in a drawer. I try to introduce chores as young as I can, and have realistic expectations — that means letting it slide when the 4-year-old misses a lot when sweeping the floor, but also making the 12-year-old redo it when she does. (A book I love about building work ethic and age-appropriate chores for kids is The Parenting Breakthrough.)
3. Mean what you say.
Kids work willingly at home when they know they can’t get out of chores by avoiding, ignoring, stalling, or throwing fits. If you feel like your kids don’t listen when you ask them to work at home, odds are they’re also using the same tactics to keep climbing on the couch when you say stop or keep texting at the table when you tell them to put their phone away. In this case, it’s your discipline style instead of your chore charts that need tweaking.
4. Teach the broader lesson.
My 3-year-old’s favorite phrase right now is “I don’t want to,” to which we answer, “I know, but we all work to help the family.” To us, it’s not just about having a clean house. We want the kids to learn that life involves work, and pitching in is just part of being alive. When someone spills their milk, we try to shrug and say “The towels are in the kitchen” instead of getting mad and treating cleanup like their punishment. (Note that I said ‘try.’ It’s hard not to get mad the 250th time something spills.)
5. Fight entitlement in other ways.
We avoid spoiling the kids with excess toys, overpaying their allowance, or only assigning chores when they get an immediate reward. We also try to get the kids involved in activities that require consistent hard work, like sports or instruments.
6. Love them like crazy.
Maybe this is the most important one and I should’ve put it first, but the one thing you can never give your kids too much of is love. When you have a good relationship with your kids, they will want to be good for you, listen to you, and volunteer to help without even being asked. Kids who work hard are still happy as long as they know their parents love them unconditionally, care about their lives, and genuinely like them.
In my view, having hard-working kids is more a part of our overall parenting philosophy rather than a separate set of things we do or don’t do.
The specifics of how kids work in every family is going to be different, and that’s okay. But I’m pretty happy with my Martian children who pull weeds in the yard on a sunny summer afternoon because that’s what we do. It works for us.
This post originally appeared on Unremarkable Files
Jenny Evans is a night owl, perfectionist, and mother of 6 who someday aspires to make it to an appointment on time. When she’s not cleaning juice out of the carpet, she makes jokes at her own expense and blogs about her messy life with a houseful of kids at Unremarkable Files. You can also visit her on Facebook.