At a recent birthday party, a three-year-old was in complete awe when she unwrapped a toy vacuum cleaner. When turned on, the vacuum made noises, and inside swirled colorful particles imitating a real vacuum. The child was captivated by the play vacuum, and immediately began vacuuming the carpet, while completely ignoring her other presents. Why are young children fascinated by the most mundane chores adults do? What piques their interest at such a young age to imitate their parents? What can parents do to accommodate this and engage children in helping around the house?
During a child’s development, there are many factors (physical, mental, social, emotional) that contribute to a child’s curiosity and learning. Taking these into consideration, parents can implement age-appropriate expectations and responsibilities.
The opportunity to work is a gift parents give their children—one that helps them toward reaching their full potential. Chores instill values, facilitate healthy development, and foster a sense of responsibility. A parent who doesn’t help a child learn to work will hinder their growth and development. If children are not given responsibility and don’t learn to do their part in the family, they may become lazy, entitled, and motivated only by self-interest.
Some examples of realistic, age-appropriate chores:
- Newborn-12 months: nothing…they are infants!
- 2-3 years old: organizing/stacking toys, “clean up,” sorting laundry by colors, giving water to pets/plants
- 4 years old: putting away clothes, sorting recycle items, put away toys
- 5 years old: putting away the groceries, making the bed, cleaning/organizing their bedroom
- 6-8 years old: setting/clearing the table, dusting, helping to create a grocery list
- 9-11 years old: food preparation, helping wash the car, loading/unloading the dishwasher or doing dishes
- Over 11 years old: cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming/cleaning floors, caring for pets
When assigning chores, parents should take time to teach their children how to do them properly. Leading by example is a way parents can engage and encourage children. Be patient—it may take a few tries before children get the hang of it. Also, keep expectations age-appropriate; it is unrealistic to expect a child to complete chores as well as an adult.
Responsibilities can be divided between siblings and changed periodically to ensure a variety for children. Parents can create a daily or weekly schedule and implement a reward system, such as tracking (stickers), having an allowance, going out for a special treat, or participating in a fun activity. Positively reinforcing children by acknowledging their efforts and complementing their work may help foster intrinsic motivation to do a good job.
As parents, we understand that kids don’t like chores—not because they are bad kids, but because they are kids. They may not be naturally inclined to hard work. They may complain, make excuses, and try to get out of their chores. However, we are not doing our kids or ourselves any favors in the long run if we cave in—this only reinforces the complaining and fails to teach the importance of work. Having firm and realistic expectations is a manifestation of parental love.
Dr. Stephen Fife is an Associate Professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at UNLV. Cherelle Ola is a graduate student in the MFT Program. E-mail Dr. Fife at firstname.lastname@example.org.