A vague "I need more help around the house" doesn't work with kids. Sit down as a family and make a list of jobs that are age-appropriate for each child. Involve them in establishing a fair workload -- it prevents such complaints as "I have too many jobs!" or "Jesse doesn't have to do anything!" It may take several family meetings to get this ironed out, so be patient.
Giving kids one or two simple chores at an early age establishes the idea that they're expected to contribute. By age 4, my children each had a "put-away basket." At night they'd collect toys from around the house and put the contents away while we listened to a story on tape. Often I'd have to help, but it was the routine that was important. Three- and 4-year-olds can put their dirty clothes into the hamper and take their own plastic dishes to the sink.
If "taking care of Kitty" includes topping off the kibble and changing the water, make that clear. Write down the tasks and a complete job description (if your child isn't reading yet, have him make drawings of the chore to help him remember). Then have everyone initial it, and keep a copy handy. You'll avoid a lot of unpleasant I-didn't-know-I-was-supposed-tos later.
Chore systems often fall apart when kids can't remember what they're supposed to do or whose turn it is to do what. Whether you have one child or six, the key is to keep it simple. Give permanent jobs, or have kids trade off at easy-to-remember times. One child can do dishes on odd days, the other on even, for example. In our family, parents do all chores on the 31st (so that one of our sons isn't stuck doing dishes two odd days in a row). Keep track of schedules on a calendar that's kept with the job descriptions.
Remember that the point of kid chores isn't perfection, it's developing good habits and getting ongoing help. When my son Sammy took on counter-wiping duty in the kids' bathroom (which guests used), I wanted to hang a disclaimer on the wall: "Cleaned by Sammy, age 6!" Nevertheless, I didn't destroy his confidence or make him feel his help was bogus by snatching the sponge out of his hand and redoing his job. I ignored what I could and did touch-ups when he was at school.
It's easier for kids to tackle their chores when the task at hand isn't overwhelming. For example, I make sure the dishwasher is unloaded so whoever has dinner-dish duty has an easier time of it. If I cook something that uses every pot in the kitchen, I do cleanup as I go.
As my kids became more capable, I increased their responsibilities. Once Sammy mastered wiping the counters, I asked him to do the mirror. Now both boys know "bathroom duty" includes scrubbing the toilet, cleaning the bathtub, and mopping the floor.
While our chore system is clearly spelled out, I may bend the rules if a child has a lot of homework or needs a break because he's had a tough day. I find this makes them more accommodating too, and they'll help me out if I'm in a time crunch.
If the kids failed to do their chores, we decided, again together, that daily TV time would be canceled. Amazingly, once our sons knew precisely what to do and when to do it, and believed that what was asked of them was fair, we rarely had to use punishment.
We started a family tradition of scheduling time on the weekend when we all work on something together. It might be weeding the garden or washing windows. A team effort can produce measurable results -- it helps our children see that even tough jobs aren't so bad when everyone pitches in.
"Thanks for dinner, Mom." Even though making dinner is my responsibility, I love to hear those words. Likewise, thanking my kids for doing what they're expected to do, whether it's taking out the garbage or folding laundry, shows them that I notice and appreciate their contributions. Gratitude can be contagious, and it's a nice thing to catch.
Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the July 2004 issue of Parents magazine.