The science is clear: chores have huge benefits for kids. So why do surveys show the rates of childhood chores going down? In our modern world of parenting, we could hypothesize many factors: our kids are busier than ever with extracurricular activities, more homework, too much technology and screentime; OR we are busier than ever, and it takes MORE work to allow a clumsy three-year-old to sweep the floor than to do it ourselves. So how do we bridge this gap between what we know is best for our kids and doing it?
The Chore Gap: Aspirational Parenting versus Reality Parenting
My husband and I expend so much energy on the simple act of reminding our children to “CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELVES!” The idea of getting them to do actual chores seems like winning a gold medal in the Olympic sport of parenting, and we are not athletes.
It’s probably safe to assume that you and I want the same for our children: we want them to be considerate, helpful, and collaborative with a good work ethic and happy relationships.
Unfortunately what I keep learning in parenting is that these aspirations take a lot of old-fashioned EFFORT. I know this sounds like common sense, but think about it in your day-to-day.
It’s easier to do the dishes than to entrust a child who will likely not wash correctly and/or break something; it’s less chaos to put away their clothes in an orderly way in the drawer than to watch them haphazardly stuff in the clothes. It takes more work to give up control and the “best” way to do things if we hand over to our children more tasks than just cleaning up their rooms.
Why take this on? Parenting is already sapping so much of my energy; why make my life more difficult with more power struggles, nagging, and mediocre-ly completed chores? Well, apparently because if I want my kids to have the values I desperately want them to have, they need to do chores.
I recently listened to a former Stanford dean of admissions talk about how doing chores was more important than any other factor in a college student’s success, even compared to academic performance and test scores. Say what? That got my attention.
The Science of Chores
I did my research, and this is what I discovered:
There have been DECADES of studies showing how doing chores in childhood benefits them later in all ways: academically, emotionally, and professionally.
One study followed 84 children from their preschool years through their mid-20s; those who started chores in their preschool years were more likely than those who didn’t to have all those positive outcomes I want for my kids: good relationships, academic achievement, early career success, and self-sufficiency.
A survey of 10,000 middle-school and high-school students found 80% ranked achievement and happiness ahead of caring for others; the authors ask if we are sending the wrong message by excusing kids from chores for the sake of schoolwork.
A 2003 study found that the number of 9-12-year-olds doing chores declined 9% between 1997 and 2003 to 72%; by ages 16-18, only 65% of teens do chores. (I wonder if this has changed in the last 15 years . . . it’s a whole new generation now.)
The Art of Chores
Okay, so I’m convinced we need to give our children chores. The next step is HOW to approach this parenting mountain when we can barely get out of the weeds down below.
Here and there, we do tell our children, “we are a family, we all help out, so clear off the table while we do the dishes.” But I learned what we are lacking is the consistent expectation of doing this EVERY NIGHT. I know better as a supposed expert in child development and behavior, but it’s just downright hard to build new routines and habits.
Some tips I found that could help kickstart us:
Thank your child for “being a helper” instead of “helping.” In a study of 3-6-year-olds, this simple difference was more motivating for the kids.
Schedule chore time and write it down to be consistent.
Make it like a video game – younger kids can “level” up types of responsibilities by doing well at each level.
To increase prosocial behaviors, chores should be about the family space, not just their personal space and belongings; it can help to involve kids in choosing these tasks.
Say “Let’s do our chores” instead of “Do your chores.”
Good marketing: Chores should not be part of punishments; we should talk about our own chores neutrally instead of complaining.
As in all things internet, however, I found conflicting advice and guidance on the HOW of giving kids chores. The most common discrepancy was whether to tie allowance to chores. Money can obviously be a good incentive to shape a new behavior, but the risk is the motivation becomes purely financial instead of building up a sense of responsibility as a family member.
It seems there needs to be a middle ground between using positive motivators to establish behaviors, and using the type of motivation that still aligns with the values we are trying to instill.
Guess what? There’s an app for that. Seriously. Some brilliant entrepreneur parents have created chore apps that blend the fun of a video game (earning coins, encountering monsters) with the tedium of chores. I haven't tried it of course, but that leads nicely into my inspiration: the chore challenge.
The Chore Challenge
As a psychologist, I know behavior change is just plain hard. As a mother, I know that changing parenting behaviors is especially hard.
With all this in mind, my husband and I started testing the waters by asking more of our children when we noticed opportunities. One afternoon, we casually enlisted the children to help clean out baby toys for donation, and they surprised us with how invested they became. They even seemed to enjoy the feeling of accomplishing such a grown-up task. We didn't pay them, but we did celebrate with a trip to our favorite ice cream place after dropping off a van full of boxes.
In the two years since I initially wrote this blog post, my family has had our share of stops and starts. The color-coded fancy magnetic chore chart lasted about a month. When our daughter wanted to earn money for an activity, she took over the chores we had distributed among all 3 kids. It’s not clean and far from perfect, kind of like the bathroom after the kids “clean” it.
Make no mistake, we still issue a constant stream of “clean up after yourself” reminders. But, the philosophy of “we all do our part around the house as a team” has lasted. The children have done more sweeping, scrubbing, vacuuming, and straightening than before I wrote this. They even don’t always complain! Sometimes true change comes just one chore at a time.
Readings and Resources:
Why Children Need Chores, Wall Street Journal
The Benefits of Kids Doing Chores, Michigan State University (includes a PDF chart of age-appropriate chores)