Toddler issues a chore challenge.
Twelve-month-old Arielle is challenging other children to raise the bar and get to work.
Today’s children are doing fewer chores than ever before, and as a result we should not be shocked to realize that many teens and young adults have missed some very important lessons.
Having specific jobs that the child owns is a fundamental building block to learning how to be responsible.
Learning to do things that don’t appear to directly help you is vitally important. Those children who learn to contribute and help others or the family are generally not going to be those who grow up feeling entitled. Doing things for the family helps connect the child to the family and helps provide some needed perspective. Self-centered children can lead to self-absorbed teens and adults.
The more children learn how to take care of themselves, their homes, and their families, the more independent they feel and become. Children who learn independence develop confidence and initiate doing more and more themselves, while those who are dependent fear and often fail to move themselves forward.
Learning how to take care of your living space, your room, and your home not only teaches independence, but also teaches an appreciation for clean, organized, and pleasant surroundings. Learning how to do your laundry, prepare your own nutritious food, take care of the yard, and even learning how to fix and repair things around the house all lead to confident, highly capable adults. These apparently simple skills help develop the perception and the capability that permits you to take on challenges, confront problems, and address them.
Many teens and adults sadly never develop a strong work ethic. A good work ethic is exemplified by the basics, including reliability, dedication, productivity, cooperation, and strength of character.
I hear many parents today say that their children do not have time for chores, their day is full of schoolwork, sports, music, dance lessons, etc. If your children don’t have time for chores and all of the vital lessons that come with it, I suggest you reevaluate what they are gaining from the sports and the “lessons” and think about the real basic lessons they are missing
A few years back I had the opportunity to participate in a meeting with five couples. These five couples were part of an organization of young presidents of companies. They invited me to the meeting because they were having a discussion about how they were “screwing up their children.” The couples had children ranging in age from about 10 into their 20s. As I began the discussion, we started talking about the lives of these company presidents. We all quickly learned that four of the five men had grown up in pretty typical middle class families and had chores from early ages and had jobs through high school and college. In addition, the four went to state colleges and excelled in life because of hard work, a good understanding of who they were, and a strong work ethic. All of the couples realized that their present standard of living had not helped, but had hindered their children’s development. The families were able to afford to hire help to clean their houses, take care of the lawn, and even help with food preparation. The couples had mistakenly thought that freeing their children from chores and giving them more time for sports and various lessons was providing them with an advantage. What was learned through the discussion was that the families were universally disappointed in their children’s basic characters, sense of responsibility, and their lack of a strong work ethic. They had been at a loss to understand how their children, having been given “every advantage,” were not developing into the adults they had hoped and worked for.
The meeting with these couples was very enlightening. You don’t need to be the president of a company and wealthy to make the same mistakes as these couples. As I was leaving the meeting that night, I made a discovery. Four of the five men were presidents of companies and one was not. In fact, despite having graduated from Harvard, the fifth was unemployed. His wife was the president of a company.
Building the foundation
Here are a few helpful guidelines to help you get your children heading down the road to more chores and a better character.
- Little children like 12-month-old Arielle can be helpers; and the sooner they learn, the better. For young children helping is fun, as is learning. Little children almost universally love learning most anything if it is done in a positive manner. Look for opportunities to let them help. View each of these circumstances as an opportunity for your child.
- Helping is great, but it is only the very first step; and by two or three years of age, you want to have taught your child how to do tasks all by themselves. There are many things these little people can do if you teach them how and if you provide the right tools and use the right methods.
- Reverse chaining: Reverse chaining is a great way to teach new skills. A close cousin to chores is self-help skills. Self-help skills include all of those things that permit you to take care of your basic needs, including things like dressing, undressing, toileting, bathing, self-feeding, brushing teeth, etc. As important as these self-help skills are, they should not be confused with chores, but in many way these first steps help start the foundation of independence and self-reliance. Reverse chaining is a great way to teach many multiple step tasks. Typically, if you are trying to teach a multiple step task, you start by teaching the first step and progress from there. There are a number of disadvantages to this approach. With first step forward instruction, the child just starts a task; they don’t finish it. Often after they have completed their piece, they tune out the rest of the steps. With first step forward instruction, the child tends to become prompt-dependent, meaning that they do a step and wait for a verbal or physical prompt to do the next step. And finally, the reward of doing a task is in the completion of the task, not doing the first steps of a task. First step forward teaching lacks the foundation of motivation that moves progress forward.With reverse chaining you start by completing a task up to the very last piece, and then you teach the child how to do just this last piece that completes the task. Then you complete all of the steps up to the next to last and teach that; and then the child is able to do the last two steps and again complete the task. As a simple example, let’s look at teaching a child to take off a sock. With the first step forward approach, you would start by teaching the child how to put their fingers between the sock and their leg, followed by step two, which is trying to them pull the sock down. The child would then typically mentally disengage while you completed the task. With reverse changing you would start by pulling the sock down so it is hanging off their toe, and their job is simply to pull it off their toe—it’s easy and the task is complete. Step two is to go through all of the steps until the sock is half-way or more down their foot. The child can easily accomplish this step and complete the task. Completing the task is much more rewarding than starting the task. It also teaches the child that they can, in fact, take their sock off. Proceed with pulling the sock down so it is just off the heel, then just over the heel, then a bit above the heel, and then up the leg. Reverse chaining can be used with virtually any task that requires learning a number of steps.
- If you are sharing a job, you are still just helping. The goal is for the child to own the chore. A common mistake in homes where parents are consciously trying to teach their children to be responsible for chores is to share or rotate chores. Parents generally do this in an attempt to be fair and avoid arguments between children as to who has the toughest job. Probably the most common situation involves mealtime. The sharing of the task goes from one child washing, the other dries, one sets the table, another clears the table, one does the dishes this week, the other next week. The problem with this approach is that no one owns the job. The more you can delineate responsibilities and provide ownership, the better. Owning a job means that you are responsible for that job. If you own it then you can take satisfaction in that job being done well, consistently, and in a timely fashion.
- Do not underestimate what you children can do. Most children, by the time they have reached the developmental level of a ten-year-old, can do most any cleaning or organizing task within the home, as well as most cooking and outside tasks, with the possible exception of using some power tools. If the mother of two or more children over ten is still doing a lot of the housework and cooking, they are probably depriving their children of important opportunities.
- The proper tools can make a big difference. Most fairly young children could vacuum a house or mop or clean a floor if they had the proper tools. Your six-year-old might not be able to lug around a big vacuum cleaner, but they probably could use a lightweight battery operated vacuum. Brooms and dustpans aren’t really terribly efficient for anyone, let alone a child; but there are little electric dust busters, Swiffers, etc. that work reasonably well. One way to compensate for a child’s inability to do an expert job that satisfies mom’s critical eye is to compensate with time and frequency. You might vacuum your house once or twice a week; a child could do it many times a week. You can also have them learn to use a timer so that they are spending sufficient time to get the task accomplished well. And remember to use reverse chaining to help teach them how to do the job properly in the first place.
- One of the most common errors in getting children to do chores is setting them up to fail. The more ambiguous the time requirement for the completion of a chore, the more likely it will not be accomplished without intervention. The best/easiest chores are daily chores that occur at a very specific time. If a chore is a weekly chore, it needs to be attached to a very specific time or as part of a chain of events. Scheduling chores around specific time-related events should help tremendously. Look at the child’s day and identify the events that occur at fairly exact times, such as meals, going to school, or soccer practice. Use these events as the foundation for scheduling chores. Think about a list of chores before or immediately after breakfast or dinner as places to start. Speaking of places to start, one of the very basic things that teaches responsibility, self-reliance, and maturity is getting oneself up in the morning. Try to have a specific time your child needs to get up, and once that time is established, your child should have an alarm clock that starts their day. If your child doesn’t get up when the alarm goes off, be creative and come up with some responses that will teach them to do it—quickly.
- There is a question as to whether to directly reward/pay children for doing their chores. Some families choose to use a token economy system in which the child receives a token, check, or star for every chore that is completed, and then the tokens are exchanged for money or special privileges. Many families find that this approach works. I honestly do not prefer the token system because it basically implies that the child is doing something extra or special that should be rewarded beyond just a verbal acknowledgment. I would generally prefer to see the child receive a set allowance that is essentially an acknowledgment that they are a contributing member of the family, and then some form of natural consequence for not completing their chores. It may be necessary to start with a reward system to get things started, but if you do, try to phase out the system as soon as possible. I do think that providing a list of things that children can do above and beyond their chores, such as washing and waxing dad’s car, is appropriate, along with a specific dollar amount to be earned.
- One of the realities of developing, orchestrating, and teaching your child how to do chores properly involves looking for and providing the opportunities and scheduling. We could lump these pieces under the general term of management. Management is a reality of running a home or raising children. A vital role of management is oversight. I have spent the majority of my adult life traveling around the country and the world meeting with families. All of this travel involves more hotels and restaurants than I would care to recall. Staying in all of these hotels and eating at all of these restaurants makes the role of management incredibly relevant and obvious. When you observe people at the hotel desk who don’t know what they are doing or who get your reservations confused, or poorly prepared food that is late and cold at a restaurant, it is an issue with training, oversight, and management. Do not expect your children to function in their jobs without oversight and management; it isn’t going to happen. If most adults can’t function without it, don’t expect your children to. Ultimately, with proper oversight and management, your children will learn how to be responsible, how to pay attention to detail, and how to complete tasks well without supervision. But until they have been taught, don’t expect a miracle.
- If you have a child who is mentally and physically capable of doing chores and you cannot find time in their day for these tasks, you should re-evaluate priorities. The lessons learned from doing chores, such as becoming responsible, learning to serve, being unselfish, independent, highly capably, and developing all of the aspects of a good work ethic, are vital to building a personal foundation for your child that will serve them well throughout their lives. The role of chores in the development of typical children is vital, however all of the benefits of chores are magnified for those with special needs. One of the greatest issues for those with developmental issues is dependency. The greater the issues the more dependent the individual. It is important to try to find appropriate chores commensurate with the abilities of the individual and taking the time to find the proper tools and offer the proper training is so that they can contribute and learn all of the associated lessons.
Many parents neglect to realize that one of our jobs as parents is to raise our children to be functional adults, responsible, competent members of society, and perhaps parents themselves, who will need all the tools they can get to help the next generation succeed. There are far too many big children out there who believe they are adults.
Potential is a refection of opportunity. Let’s provide our children with all of the opportunities we can to build their personal foundations.
P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, Arielle, the Big Helper, is my granddaughter, daughter of my son, Laird, and his lovely wife, Sadie. I have issued the challenge in her name. The videos were shot the week of her first birthday. She is a beautiful and, of course, smart little girl whose proud grandfather is going to have to exercise a great deal of self-restraint not to spoil.