Have we left it too late to get our children doing chores?

Dear Jenny Hale

We are a pretty busy family by most people’s standards and it feels like a lot of our time is invested in the busyness of school, after-school activities, play dates and getting from A to B. My husband and I have a sneaky suspicion that we are meant to get our kids involved in helping out around home. They are 7, 9 and 12.

I don’t know if we have missed the boat, but we haven’t expected them to do many chores to help out as their lives seem busy enough. It is also true that we don’t like the resistance we come up against, so it’s less trouble to just do the jobs ourselves. What we don’t like though, is their unwillingness to do any chores when we ask them to lend a hand and it feels like we have contributed to turning our kids into little princes and princesses. Now we are wondering if it is too late to change the pattern and their lack of gratitude for what we do for them?

Jenny’s tips

Getting children to contribute to daily chores and helping around home is going to take some energy and focus. It is never too late to start, but at this stage you will definitely meet with more resistance than if your children were preschoolers.

Some interesting research has been done on chores and the benefits for children, and especially the outcomes for young adults. This can keep you focused when it all gets a bit hard. When children have been involved in household tasks, there is a direct correlation between completing their education, getting on a career path, forming better relationships with family and friends and less likelihood of drug use.

Have a mini meeting between dinner and dessert one evening (dessert can be the incentive to listen!) and let the children know you have realised that this part of helping them become great adults who have good friends and relationships has been missing. This ‘reset’ lets them know you have a plan and a dream for them to succeed and that you are not just turning mean. Your aim is to help them become skilled, capable contributors who feel proud of themselves.

Your children are not likely to say, “Wow, mum and dad, this is awesome. We love having jobs to do – we were missing out before!” However, they will quietly love the sense of achievement and self-worth as they pitch in, feel part of a bigger team and can honestly say that they are able to peg out washing, make a meal, unpack the dishwasher, feed the dog, make their bed, tidy their room, put their clothes away etc.

Each week, have a five minute meeting to divvy up the chores or use a chart with the childrens’ names and chores shown. The key is to give children variety and to spend a bit of time teaching them how to do the task. One of the hardest things to do is to keep focused and nudge the children along. The first week may be easy, but be ready for some wobbles by week two. Keep positive and be encouraging. Have some silly rewards for remembering to do the chores without any reminders!

The outcome

As expected, the novelty wore off after about five days but mum and dad hung in there and found listing the chores on the fridge under each child’s name a great reminder to track the progress. Mum found it particularly demanding on her time, when she realised that she would need to teach the children how to do some of the jobs she had taken control of. Things took longer, were done with less expertise and more mess than she liked. She tried not to fixate on the bumpy wobbly beds, crumbs and mess in the kitchen after the children had made their own sandwiches, or be disheartened by the moans and groans.

Dad felt like the atmosphere in the home improved almost at once. It was like letting the children get waited upon had created some unwanted meanness and sense of entitlement. The kids actually seemed to get on better. The mini meetings continued so that the children felt that chores were now part of the family expectations and not just another trial. What kept the momentum going was the decision to keep the chores a positive experience so dad helped each child once a week with one chore they nominated for extra help on and some silly prizes for things like fastest bed maker, most creative sandwich concoction, least bumpy bed, least in need of reminders, most helpful to siblings, and the end of week bonus for outstanding effort.