Reframing Chores for Young Children: Why and How
Does your child do chores? Research suggests that the probability a parent would answer "yes" to this question these days is pretty low.
How low? A recent survey found that while 82% of current parents did them when they were young, only 28% of the children are doing them today.
This trend is certainly disconcerting. I conducted a review of research on chores spanning the last few decades. It was clear that they should be a part of growing up: They promote school achievement along with a growing sense of empathy and concern for others. Simply put, children need them.
Given this, why are only 28% of kids doing chores? One possible reason is that we simply need reminders of these benefits. In addition, we may focus more heavily on structured activities than daily behavior around the house, thinking those are the things that will accelerate our children's development.
But there's another factor. While it can be hard to get kids to help out at home, there may be better ways of cultivating involvement in household activities that we don't try. Reframing how we think and talk about our household duties and responsibilities may be a key.
Think about it. Just the word "chores" can cause a frown. Household responsibilities are a major source for stress for adults. What can we do about this? Change how we think about them. If you are making a meal or cleaning your kids clothes, it can be helpful -- in fact even powerful -- to remind yourself that you are in fact doing something to take care of your child. Sure it can be a grind sometimes, but doesn't the care giving aspect outweigh that? And isn't that rewarding to you?
Importantly, such reframing can help change how we talk to kids about chores. If they sound like a drag -- or worse, sometimes a punishment -- how would we expect kids to gravitate to them? Recent research keeps revealing how young children are "natural helpers." They really do like pitching in and they don't even always need to be asked to do so. So ... why not give them the message that chores are a good thing to do?
You just want to be sure that what you ask them to do is age appropriate. Put another way, don't ask them to do something that you will want to redo or be inclined to criticize. Your 3-year-old doesn't need to take the basket of laundry and sort it all out and fold it on his or her own. You can, however, recruit some help. Some sorting, a little folding. Same with any other household activity. Carrying a plastic glass to the kitchen instead of just leaving it on the table. Maybe pushing the vacuum here and there. Helping you to put away toys. Be creative and inclusive. That's all we are talking about.
There's one last big tip. Offer an invitation rather than a command, bearing in mind that you are crafting a sense of doing for others along with a foundation for personal responsibility. Using "we" rather than "you" and "me" can create the collective sense that you are working together toward a common goal of doing for each other. And you don't need to heap on the praise for every action or give some type of reward (in fact, rewards and allowances backfire). An occasional "You're a great helper!" works fine, along with a smile.
As your child gets acclimated to this type of climate in the house, it's a safe bet that they will continue to be a good sport and a good helper. Not every second of the day. Not every time that you ask. But over time the collective experiences will help promote both their emerging sense of personal responsibility and growing conception of being someone who does for others (and doesn't expect someone to just do for them). These experiences will indeed matter and serve them well as they mature and become "doers" - and research suggests this will in fact last a lifetime.
Richard Rende, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, researcher, educator, consultant, and author. He has held many leadership roles in child development research and academia throughout his career. He is co-author (with Jen Prosek) of the forthcoming "Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Children the Tools to Thrive in a Fast-Changing World" (Perigee/Penguin Random House; August 2015), which provides an evidence-based approach for nurturing entrepreneurial traits that all children will need for future success. Rende serves as Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Phoenix Country Day School. He provides a trusted academic voice on parenting, and his work has been featured in Parents.com, Parenting.com, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo!, Time.com, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, and NPR.
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