Not long ago, I was moaning to a friend about not being able to keep up with the messy chaos of my household. Stacks of dishes teetered in the sink, never-ending piles of unfolded laundry towered behind the couch and I constantly felt stressed, cranky and joyless. In response, my brilliant friend pointed out that my soon-to-be 9-year-old kiddo was more than capable of helping with housework. So, that night after dinner I asked my daughter to help with the dishes. After some grumbling and foot dragging, she made her way to the sink. She scrubbed and rinsed while I dried and put the dishes away. Before long, her grumbling had morphed into giggles. The following day when she asked for TV time, I said sure – as long as she folded laundry while she watched. Again, she grumbled, and I had to demonstrate three times how to properly fold a towel, but she settled into her task and eventually presented me with a basket of haphazardly folded towels. Although I felt compelled to refold the towels in secret that evening, I persisted in enforcing the new regime, and over the next few weeks, I noticed a subtle shift in my daughter's demeanor, and indeed, my own. She seemed generally happier and more engaged, and I, too, was finding it easier to find the joy in my daily life. Although the house was only slightly tidier, I increasingly felt more like the leader of a functioning household team and less like a resentful drill sergeant.
Jaime Jensen-Cole is a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner in Springfield and a mom of two elementary-aged kids. She emphasized that beyond just lightening the load for parents, engaging kids in the daily maintenance of their household is essential to kids' social and emotional well-being and a key component of important developmental milestones. "I find often these days, kids just don't have as much responsibility, and therefore, miss out on an important sense of contribution and working together as a family," she said. "Structured routines are paramount for all kids, especially if they have anxiety or ADHD. Breaking down the the steps they need to follow and facilitating opportunities for early successes gives all kids a sense of ownership and independence when they've learned to complete a task on their own."
In addition to teaching them the practical life skills they need to be a functional adult, Jensen-Cole points out that chores instill in them the mindset that doing hard things now will be rewarded later. "This plays into academics and every other facet of their life," she explained. "It's crucial for kids to learn that doing difficult things is OK and that they can get through it. Building this foundation for long-term health and development of self-esteem has significant and measurable long-term benefits."
Understand your kids' limits
"It's important to understand a kid's limits and manage your expectations accordingly," Jensen-Cole said, "although often we find than our kids are capable of more than we think they are." Rather than abruptly assigning a list of chores or a multi-step chore to your child, begin by breaking down a larger task and recruiting your child to assist you with individual steps, such as working together to wash and dry dishes or fold towels. Dividing larger or more complex tasks into smaller subsets creates opportunities for children of all ages and developmental stages to help and learn. Younger children who start by sorting clothes, putting away cutlery and cleaning up toys will eventually be able to take on more tasks independently.
Jensen-Cole also recommends time-boxing chore time. "When we do big bedroom clean-up sessions, we do a 15/30 split. We have a plan and work together really hard, and when the timer goes off, the kids get a 30-minute break." As kids build stamina, they may choose to forgo a break and just get it over with. Just be mindful of each child's developmental level, Jensen-Cole points out. "While my eldest is usually keen to keep going during these 15/30 sessions, her younger sibling needs a few more breaks. In the end, they're both learning that when they stick to the task, it's easier and ultimately more rewarding than if they drag their feet."
Perfection is the enemy of progress
"It's important to avoid the parental concept of 'I need to get it done the way I want it done,'" Jensen-Cole noted. When kids are trying their best and learning a new skill, parents must remember not to criticize their efforts, she advised. Many caregivers, myself included, avoid assigning chores to kids because it's faster to just do it ourselves. Kids can be painfully slow, especially when they're learning something new and lacking enthusiasm, but denying children these learning opportunities ends up making more work for parents in the long run.
Ashley Meyer is a Springfield mom of two who looks forward to having more help around the house.