But I Can Do It Better! The Case for Chores - Kimberly Thompson

Why on earth would you want a toddler putting things away, or a six-year-old folding towels? You can do it better and faster. Your child can spend her time playing, reading or learning calculus (I’m sure your offspring never spends her time emptying the junk drawer or squabbling with her siblings). If you look at it that way, teaching your child to do chores is a lose-lose proposition.

I want to make a case for chores. If you take the long view, coaching your child to do menial tasks for herself actually turns out to be a win-win:

· Your child contributes something genuinely needed to her family. True helpfulness builds up a child’s confidence and sense of self-worth.


· Once the initial training is done, your job has diminished a little. That is a really nice perk of taking the time to teach your child how to do chores.

Children are not going to do household chores as well as you can, especially not at first. But think about this: If they complete just 50% of it, you only have to do 50% of it. That adds up over time.

Here I must add a key ingredient: Appreciate their efforts. When a young child gives a good-faith effort, sincerely praise them. Thank them. Bite your own tongue before criticizing. Do not “fix” the job they did right in front of them. (Not even the father-and-child decorated Christmas tree … ouch).  Later on, you can add some quality requirements. You don’t have to forever accept toddler-quality work.

Always keep the jobs you give your child well within her capabilities. Think about the skills your child has already acquired and help her apply them to getting important things done around the home.

Toddlers. What do toddlers do well? They know where you keep things they are interested in, they know how to walk, and they can carry things around with them. They also know a lot of language and are beginning to use some of it themselves. So, why are you tidying up alone night after night, after everyone else has gone to bed? Your toddler can help put toys into big containers like a toy box, baskets, or her closet.

Your toddler can also put small, light things away for you. Open your underwear drawer and hand her a stack of your undies. Does it really matter if your clean undies end up as jumbled wads? Who really folds underwear anyway? She can also take junk mail and her own diapers to the trash can, put away plastic bowls in the kitchen, and stuff washcloths into the linen closet. I’ll bet you can think of other suitable things for your toddler to put away for you.

Preschoolers. Provide your preschooler with the tools she needs to take care of her own possessions. This means a trash can and laundry basket in her room, a towel bar low enough for her to use in the bathroom, and easy access to the dog or cat food. OK, that last one is only for kids who are beyond putting everything in their mouths. Yuck.

Your preschooler’s bedding should be of the type that encourages her to make her own bed. A very light, thick comforter rather than a thin bedspread that is hard to smooth out. Not too many decorative pillows. Position the bed so she can walk around it on three sides. Then, set a regular time of day for her to make her bed. Show her how one day, do it with her the next, watch her do it alone the next, and so on.

School age. There are so many things that elementary-age children can do! By the time they reach fifth or sixth grade, they could almost take care of all the housework on their own. OK, I don’t really recommend that, it would be a rather large burden for a child. However, by this age you are only limited by the question, “Is it dangerous or potentially harmful?”

When your child is school age, think about how much time you want to expect your child to spend learning practical life-skills. When he or she is in school all day, a daily list of chores that takes ½ to one hour total (if your child gets down to business and does them) seems reasonable to me. Remember that it doesn’t all have to be drudgery. Many elementary-age kids enjoy cooking — I see 10 and 11 year olds competing against adult chefs on the Food Network — and they only need a little coaching and supervision with heat and sharp objects. I once heard of a mom who made a game out of cleaning the panes on her glass French doors — her daughters would wipe on a filmy glass cleaner, then cover their fingers with a soft cloth, and play a game of tic-tac-toe on each window pane. Whoever lost had to clean it.

Middle school. Play your cards right, and by middle school it will be a given that your child launders her own clothes, deep-cleans her own room, and does a reasonable share of the cooking and other housekeeping. What is reasonable? That varies by family. If mom stays at home full-time, a reasonable share could be cleaning up her own messes, caring for a pet, and preparing dinner one evening a week.

There are many times that “reasonable” might mean significantly more work. Mom and dad both work full time. You are a single-parent family. A parent or a sibling is seriously ill. If you have adopted the attitude that chores are not a punishment but rather an important way that your child contributes to the family, chores can be empowering rather than a burden.

High school. By this time your offspring probably has a lot more freedom and is spending a lot more time away from home. Unless you have a situation where you need your high schooler to supervise younger siblings or help with an elderly grandparent, this is a time when you loosen up on the daily chores. By starting in toddlerhood, the goal is that your high schooler has acquired most of the important household skills she will need to function on her own, and now she is concentrating on handling things like driving, managing her own schedule, and maybe even a part-time job. I will discuss these issues, including behavior issues you may have with your high schooler, in later posts. The point now is that you don’t want to wait until high school to teach your child how to do laundry or cook a simple meal. She is going to have a lot of other important life skills to learn at this stage of the game.

I don’t mean that you give up on chores completely. Rather, you are going to have to adjust your expectations based on her school/work/activity schedule, and probably pare it down to “take care of your own stuff and your own messes.”

I know some of you are thinking that I haven’t talked at all about “What do I do when my child resists chores?” That little issue falls under behavior issues, and I will be talking about those in later posts. For now I would like you to remember a few basic principles:

· Chores are not punishment.

· Chores are a way for a child to genuinely contribute something important to her family.

· If your child can only do a task halfway right, that’s a half you don’t have to do yourself. Coach your child over time to improve her skills.

· A good faith effort by a child of any age should be met with appreciation.

Happy housekeeping! Love, The Mommy Mentor


     I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I work with mothers and their children to help them heal, grow, and live their most vibrant lives. My particular expertise is pregnant and postpartum women, and moms of “littles.” My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is available on Amazon and from Praeclarus Press. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face; if you live anywhere else in the state of Texas, you can work with me via online therapy. Send me a message if you need more information, or call my office at (806) 224-0200 if you’re ready to book an appointment.