Ever since your kids were newborns, you’ve been shouldering laundry duty. But guess what? Even little ones can help—and it’s actually good for them. Here’s how to spin this starter chore while keeping it fun.

By Ayn-Monique Klahre
February 28, 2008
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Priscilla Gragg
| Credit: Priscilla Gragg

My husband and I make a good laundry team: I wash, he folds. But I’ve never felt quite patient enough to teach our daughters the steps. Or, as Deborah Gilboa, M.D., author of Get the Behavior You Want ... Without Being the Parent You Hate! and mom of four, sums it up: “It’s faster to do it yourself, and then you don’t have to nag.” Yet we all know that children crave independence and that mastering a skill, especially one that seems grown-up, can give them tremendous self-confidence. “There’s tons of research showing that when kids do chores to benefit the whole house, they gain more connection to the family,” Dr. Gilboa says. “Learning to help with the laundry makes them feel competent, an ingredient of future adult happiness.”

Eventually, as laundry turns into a family effort, it’s less work for you, in addition to being good for the kids’ self-esteem. And your children can help way sooner than you’d expect—as early as toddlerhood, as it turns out.

Getting your kids on board with laundry frees you up to do the things you can’t delegate, Dr. Gilboa points out. (Wouldn’t you rather they mess up doing the laundry than paying the bills?) With all of this in mind, I set out to learn how kids can pitch in at various ages—and get my own two helpers, 6 and 8, officially into the family fold.

Jobs for Every Age

You can’t expect kids to take on the family laundry all at once, but you can plant the seeds young. After all, this is a generation that learns how to swipe on a device before they talk—and a washing machine isn’t that much more complicated than a tablet.

Toddlers

At this age, kids’ only real skill is in sorting—but it’s still useful! Helping with laundry introduces the idea that working together makes the household run.

Tasks They Can Help With:

  • When your child is 18 months to 2 years old, you can show them that dirty clothes go in the hamper and clean clothes go in the drawers.
  • Take a cue from what they’re learning. If it’s colors, tell them to find everything red in the laundry basket. If it’s numbers, challenge them to pull out two things.
  • As they begin to spot items that match, see if they can pair up socks by their pattern.
  • Build on their vocabulary. “Say, ‘Can you find the pants in this pile?’ ” says Becky Rapinchuk, founder of CleanMama.com and mother of three. Ask them to find the shirt with the truck or the towel with flowers.

Keep It Fun: 

Sing as you sort, pretend the laundry basket is a boat, or flip it upside down for a hideout. Before you fold, bury your child in a pile of warm, clean clothes (my younger one still can’t resist this).

Pro Tip:

“As soon as they’re saying, ‘Me do it,’ let them help,” Dr. Gilboa says.

Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Preschoolers

Take advantage of the way they mimic you. Talk through the steps as you go so they can “do laundry” the next time they play house.

Tasks They Can Help With:

  • Send them on a toy hunt to check pockets before the wash. Show them how to do it and they’ll be pros in no time.
  • Tap into preschool skills like learning opposites (sort lights from darks) and letter sounds (“U is for undies—can you find all the undies and place them here?”).
  • Let them pull clothes from the dryer and put them in a laundry basket once you show them how.
  • “By 3 or 4, they can do some folding—it just depends on how wrinkly you care about your clothes being,” Dr. Gilboa says. Get them started on something simple like a washcloth they can just roll up.

Keep It Fun: 

Set a timer to see who folds the fastest, play music for freeze dance–style folding, or have a race to put clothes away, says Jenny Abrams, a professional organizer and mom of two. Or encourage kids to color-code drawers as Ashley Murphy, mom of two and cofounder of the NEAT Method home-organization company, does.

Pro Tip:

“Sometimes kids can’t remember where things go, so tape pictures of socks, underwear, and other clothes onto drawers as visual reminders,” says Amy Tokos, a professional organizer and mom of four. Just be realistic about their attention span by giving them little jobs. “A 3-year-old can stay on task for only about three minutes before their mind wanders,” says Monica Potter, Ed.D., a licensed parent educator.

Younger School-Age Kids

After working on a few loads with me, my kids were able to explain the whole process, from sorting dirty clothes to pouring in the “blue stuff” to putting clean clothes away. I’m still there to measure the detergent, though! And I’m keeping steps goof-proof: Wash on cold, dry on low heat.

Tasks They Can Help With:

  • Once your child is strong enough, encourage them to bring their own clothes to the laundry room.
  • Ask kids to “spot the stain” using stickers (just like the dry cleaner does) and set those clothes aside for you to pretreat. Also have them separate garments that need extra care (in our world, anything sequined).
  • If you have front-loading machines, kids can put a load in the washer and transfer it to the dryer with supervision. “We have a top loader, so we open the lid and the kids throw the laundry into it basketball-style,” says Tania Lamb, a mother of five who blogs at lolalambchops.com.
  • Set up a stool so they can reach, read, and select the cycle that you suggest (my 8-year-old says each out loud). You still want to add the detergent yourself.

Keep It Fun: 

My girls get a kick out of debating who gets to hit the “play button” to start the machine and also out of yelling at Alexa to remind us to switch the wash into the dryer. (I do keep them from riding in the laundry basket down the stairs—that’s not the kind of “fun” we need to have!) “We’ll have a folding party in which we all watch a television show together while we fold,” Lamb says. “And if I need us to move faster, I tell them that if we fold two loads in 15 minutes, then bedtime will get pushed back 30 minutes.”

Pro Tip:

Kate Muller, a mom of three in Mission Viejo, California, taught her boys to put things away by “uppers” (shirts that hang in the closet), “lowers” (bottoms that go in drawers), and socks and undies. “It was simple, and they could figure it out on their own.”

Time for a game of find the stripes
| Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Older School-Age Kids

Let them lead, but hang nearby to keep them on task. A calendar schedule can cut down on the nag factor

Tasks They Can Help With:

  • Kids in fourth and fifth grade can actually do it all: sort, wash, fold, put away. But don’t expect them to volunteer; it will still take a lot of prompting (hey look, laundry day!) and guidance from you.
  • They can handle more nuanced directions: cleaning whites at a higher temperature, pretreating stains, and pulling out swimsuits to air-dry.
  • Even if your child is on the mature side and not clumsy, it’s a good idea for you to handle detergents and bleach.

Keep It Fun: 

Make it a challenge. In Dr. Gilboa’s family, her four kids each spend a couple of years being in charge of laundry (from about age 7 to 9) and then, if they’ve got it right, they “level up” to making school lunches. Dr. Gilboa sets clear deadlines too: “There’s a rule that you can’t watch Sunday football unless the laundry’s done or you’re at least already folding it.”

Pro Tip:

This age can be a little spacey, so if your kid keeps forgetting what to do, encourage them to write out steps and reminders themselves and post them in the laundry room. Even the practice of writing tips out will help reinforce their knowledge.

Middle-Schoolers and High-Schoolers

Time to ease up on the reins. “Keep an eye on your child’s development, and back off gradually,” Dr. Potter says. Older kids should be able to handle laundry from start to finish, even if they need occasional prompts.

Tasks They Can Help With:

  • Put them in charge of their own laundry, especially items like uniforms they wear multiple times a week.
  • Read the labels of clothing before washing them, Lamb recommends. Some say turn inside out, some say dry clean only, some say wash in cold. They’re old enough to become aware of all that special handling.
  • Make your eldest the teacher. “My teen takes joy and pride in teaching his younger brothers,” says Donte Palmer, head of Squat for Change, an initiative to get diaper-changing stations in men’s bathrooms, and a father of three. “They fold towels and sheets together—though if I don’t pay attention, the house will turn into a fort!”

Keep It Fun: 

Suggest they listen to music or a podcast while they work.

Pro Tip:

Let mistakes happen. Think about the first time you “pinked” the laundry or shrank a sweater: Those were teachable moments. A kid who messes up now will take extra care later.

Safe Sudsing

Laundry is fairly kidproof as long as you retain control of the soapy part. Remember:

  1. Keep detergent in its original packaging so it’s recognizable and hard to open. “It’s not décor!” says Brian Sansoni, of the American Cleaning Institute. Put it out of sight and out of reach on a high shelf or in a closed cabinet. “Even when you believe your teenager is mature enough to do their own wash, supervise a few times,” Sansoni says.
  2. Teach toddlers and preschoolers not to ingest packets and liquids (yes, you literally have to say, “Never put this in your mouth; it’s yucky poison”) and to rinse their hands after using it. Sansoni recommends saying, “This is only for me to use. It’s not safe for kids.”
  3. Never let a child play inside the washer or dryer. Lock both if they have the mechanism, or buy a childproof lock if you have a toddler. Discourage your children from hanging out in the laundry area when you’re not there. Say, “This isn’t a playroom. No hide-and-seek in here.”

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's October 2020 issue as “Share the Load.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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