Why Chores Matter
When she was 2 , I gave my daughter Birdy her first “chore”: washing cranberries for Thanksgiving. I filled the sink with water, dumped in the berries, and asked her to make sure they got nice and clean. She swirled the berries around the sink, pushed them underwater with her sopping sleeve, laughed when they bobbed back up, and eventually strained them with a sieve. “Thank you so much,” I said, and she beamed. The berries got washed, I had time to peel the potatoes, and my daughter was given an occasion that she could rise to.
Inevitably, of course, little kids who love to help grow up into bigger kids who might balk at various assignments, reminding you that the definition of chore is not “a delightful sense of purpose” but “an unpleasant but necessary task.” Hopefully, though—and I am speaking now as a parent of teenagers—you will raise children who are happy, or at least willing, to pitch in. As Lynn Lott, a psychologist and coauthor of Chores Without Wars, told me, “Chores are one of the best mediums we have for teaching kids about being part of a family, and about belonging, significance, and teamwork.”
There are many benefits of involving your children in household work. They will learn more about the real adult world and gain self-concept (“I can do this!!”) and self-esteem (“Others value and appreciate my work”), explains Cheryl Roberts, an early-childhood development specialist. Multiple studies have shown that kids who help at home are more confident, resilient, and compassionate, do better in school, and grow up into more successful young adults. Plus, research by neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, Ph.D., suggests that doing tangible work with our hands (as opposed to, say, something on a screen) releases feel-good brain chemicals that help protect against depression.
Kids need to learn these things—first so they won’t be that annoying housemate who doesn’t know where the full bag of trash goes (“What dumpster?”) and later so they will be able to manage their own household. “Laundry, loading a dishwasher, cooking a meal—when you do them, they’re chores. But when you teach your kids to do them, they’re life skills,” says K. J. Dell’Antonia, author of How to Be a Happier Parent. And if your kids learn how to do chores, then one day those chores will get done by someone other than you. (I swear this is true.)
How you teach is up to you. There are chore wheels and sticker charts and task-labeled ice-pop sticks that kids can pull from a basket. Setting the table can be your child’s duty for the day or the week or his entire childhood. Honestly? It doesn’t matter that much, as long as your kids have chores that are theirs, and as long as you do your best to create a positive association with those jobs. In my house, we’ve worked with a mix of permanently assigned chores (my daughter is now in charge of the carpets and the cats; my son is in charge of the lawns and the trash), along with a nearly infinite number of impromptu tasks that I request help with as I need it: Can someone please mix up a salad? Is anyone free to make the guest bed? And these are requested with a blend of graciousness and heartfelt gratitude—seasoned with just the tiniest sprinkle of nagging.
Try your best to be polite and see the long-term forest of helpfulness over the annoying short-term trees of reminding your child again where the dustpan is kept. If you want to create a culture of collaboration, don’t say, “That’s your mess, you clean it up,” about your child’s art project and then expect him to run in with the broom after you spill a carton of oats. Instead, say, “How can I help?” And when your child does the same, thank him for his time and kindness.
Similarly, keep in mind that once your child has learned to do a particular task, he’ll do it differently from how you do it yourself—and this is fine! (It’s also a good reminder for interacting with your spouse, in my opinion.) In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims advises parents not to hover or micromanage. “Perfectionism is not only the enemy of the good,” she says, “it is the enemy of adulthood.”
Will you need to disrupt the routine of a child who has homework to do, sports and instruments to practice, and a couch to lie on? Yes. Will you need to spend untold patient hours teaching useful rather than just letting them spray flour around the room in a disaster of cakey excitement? You will. “In the beginning, chores aren’t a way to make less work for yourself,” notes Lott. They’re an investment with the wonderful dividend of spending time together doing a meaningful activity. One day, sooner than you can imagine, your teenager will ask, “Can I help you with dinner?” and—as if that very question isn’t reward enough for your effort—you’ll get to hear all about his life while he grates cheese and assembles enchiladas. It really doesn’t get much better than that.