Expecting your kiddos to help around the house has lots of benefits. Yes, it teaches them important life skills that will keep them from being the roommate no one can stand later in life. (I think we’ve all lived with one of those. You know the type - her dirty dishes never made it out of the sink, she left her clothes in the dryer for days, and you’re pretty sure she ate your Frosted Flakes after you left every morning because she never did her own grocery shopping. No really, I’m not still annoyed all these years later.) But back to chores and kids! When kids - even really young ones - are expected to help out around the house, they gain a sense of responsibility, self-reliance, and accomplishment which leads to positive self-esteem. They also learn how to work collaboratively and foster a good work ethic, skills they will carry into adulthood. Helping with chores also leads children to understand the needs of others and if started early on and woven into daily life, can become commonplace rather than a battle of bribery and arguing for help as kids get older.
So hey, start delegating those chores and recline on the couch to do a little binge watching while your kids scurry around polishing and tidying like forest animals in a Disney movie. (And try not to sigh in irritation when the vacuum noise forces you to pause your show.) Just kidding. Kids and chores often means more work for you. At least initially. Yes, you can probably fold laundry faster and better if you don’t have a toddler “helping”. But if you don’t allow your children to help (and what toddler doesn’t love to help?), you inadvertently send the message to your children that they are either incapable of doing these tasks or that it’s totally cool to let someone else handle everything for you. So consider your time and patience as an investment. First of all, you are spending quality time together with your little one. And as they help with chores, their sense of accomplishment and contribution fosters a feeling of capability and pride that, as the responsibility increases, will continue to grow. Also, keep the long game in mind here. As parents, we want to raise self-confident, caring, and self-sufficient individuals. So if that means a little more oversight in the early stages of teaching them some basic chores, then it’s probably a pretty good return on investment.
So how do we go about including our kids in chores? What can they do? It’s important to keep in mind what realistic expectations for kiddos and chores look like. And if you’re like me, we tend to underestimate them a bit. I remember volunteering at my son’s preschool when he was three and at snack time, he quickly bustled over to the supply drawer and pulled out plates and cups to set the table while another child gathered and placed napkins for everyone. Then, once they’d all sat down and served themselves the snack, they each took a turn pouring their own water from the pitcher into their cups. What the what?!? This was my child whose dirty clothes I would pick up from the bathroom floor and put in the hamper every evening and here he was preparing snacks? I realized I’d been expecting too little of him at home. And, in the process, doing both of us a disservice. He wasn’t learning to help and gain the important sense of self-accomplishment that results from a job well done and I was running myself ragged trying to keep up with everything single-handedly.
So take a look at some of the suggestions below for how to go about including kids as well as what tasks are age-appropriate. And of course, you know your own children best so use the lists as a guide and make it work for you and your family.
How to incorporate kids?
Make a plan
Understood expectations help with clarity. So if your kiddo sees a list with three representational pictures on it (a sock standing for laundry, a toy symbolizing toy pick up, and a duster for dusting the baseboards) they know what their jobs are. Some of the biggest problems I’ve run into (aka whining and complaining or general wandering off) is when I’ve not made an explicit plan. Picture me up to elbows with bleach scrubbing a shower while fielding repeated complaints and questions such as “What else do I have to do?”, “When can I be done?”, “I can’t find the duster”, or “Can I help with that?” when it’s not something safe for them to do. Let your children know the finite tasks they’re expected to complete up front.
Especially with young children, a complete chore is too much for them to do independently. But they can make real contributions to the process in the way of “subtasks”. For instance, holding the door open while you carry out the trash, pouring the soap in the washing machine, pushing the buttons to start the dishwasher - these tasks are all manageable for even a young toddler. They are also real contributions and teach your child that collaboration and helping are characteristics of good family members. Subtasks can and should be given daily as opposed to just during a set clean-up time to reinforce these principles.
Stick with one space at a time
When I’m cleaning alone, I bounce from room to room like a frenzied rabbit on her fifth espresso of the day and by the time I’m done, I’ve cleaned the house and logged about 15,000 steps. (I can count frantic cleaning as cardio, right?) But that disjointed process can be discouraging to kids. Seeing the results of their work quickly helps reinforce the progress they are making, so stick to cleaning or tidying one space until it’s gleaming.
Give very specific jobs
We have to remember that this is a learning process for our young kids so breaking things down into steps not only makes a task more manageable, but easier to understand. For instance, saying clean the playroom is daunting and overwhelming to a young child. And not entirely clear. But giving specific jobs - put all your trucks into the truck basket and put your clean socks and shorts into the drawers - involves them in the process of chores and housekeeping with clear understanding.
Add a soundtrack
Cleaning alone, I catch up on all my true crime podcasts and the time flies. But I don’t want to give my kids nightmares. So if they’re old enough, make a playlist before cleaning day. Everyone can anticipate hearing their own jam while we’re tidying away and music makes everything more fun - even laundry.
Use a timer
How fast can you bring all the towels into the laundry room? Can you put all the books on the shelf in three minutes? Stopwatches can be worth their weight in gold when it comes to motivating little kids. If a chore feels like a race or game and they “win” by completing it quickly and happily, I’d say we all win, right?
Celebrate a job well done
Did someone say sundaes at the end of the cleaning day? Woo-hoo! (Just don’t spill any sprinkles on that freshly mopped floor, mkay?) Celebrate and reward a job well done by having a treat or doing something together you all enjoy. Movie night, a favorite dinner, or a special dessert - positive recognition goes a long way to help instill a lifelong habit of chipping in with chores.
- Put away toys and books
- Dust or wipe down baseboards
- Help make beds
- Wipe up surfaces
- Help sort laundry
- Help set the table
- Stocking the bathrooms with toilet paper
- Carrying items to the proper room
- Put away clean silverware and plastic dishes
- Use a handheld vacuum
- Pull weeds
- Water houseplants
- Feed and water pets
- Help put away groceries
(This age group can do more with less supervision)
- Empty trash bins
- Load and unload the dishwasher
- Put away groceries
- Sweep floors
- Wipe down the table and counters
- Put away laundry
So give a few of these tasks to your own kiddos and if you’re not already, incorporate them more in the day-in-day-out jobs of running the household. Gratefully accept that enthusiastic help from your toddler (even it means a little more work for you) and remember to support, appreciate, and praise their efforts. Down the road when your children are older, you’ll be more likely to have helpful and self-confident kids who recognize when chores need doing and step up to do them independently.