There’s probably no single word that makes a kid roll their eyes at their parent with quite the same gusto as when you utter the dreaded “chores.”
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Whether it’s cleaning their room, feeding the dog or putting their dirty spoon in the dishwasher (seriously, kid, how hard is it?), it’s a fact of life that most kids aren’t in a rush to pitch in around the house.
But taking part in keeping the household running holds lifelong lessons that are important for your child’s development, says pediatrician Laura O’Connor, MD.
“Children want to feel included and help contribute in their own way. It is important to help give them the autonomy and self-confidence that comes from completing helpful chores around the house,” she says.
What chores are right for your child’s age, and how do they relate to your child’s healthy development? Dr. O’Connor breaks it down.
Research has shown that children who do chores report higher levels of satisfaction in their academic and social skills. Kids who took part in chores at home also performed better in math, according to at least one study.
“Chores teach important skills, like teamwork, contributing and responsibility, at a young age. Chores can foster grit and self-reliance, which we all hope to teach to our children,” Dr. O’Connor says.
When your child is old enough to follow a basic instruction or two, they’re ready to pitch in. Dr. O’Connor suggests starting small and keeping it fun.
“Try to make chores a part of normal, daily living that happens when you’re together as a family,” she says. “It can be as simple as just putting on music and having a dance party while also doing chores.”
Kids who are just starting to walk and talk can take great pride in completing small tasks. Toddlerhood is all about establishing some independence, so doing small tasks on their own — or with a bit of help from a grownup — feeds into their natural desire to DIY.
Include your toddler in putting away their books and toys before moving on to the next activity. Singing a “clean up song” while tidying up keeps it fun and encourages language skills, Dr. O’Connor says.
After a meal or snack, little ones can be responsible for bringing their cup or dish in to the sink. If they can’t quite reach the counter, keep a stepstool in place to give them a boost and avoid the dropsies.
Toddlers learn and grow during pretend play, so feed into their interest with some age-appropriate toys where they can practice household chores. Kid-size brooms and vacuums can be a big hit at this age. While you vacuum, let junior follow behind to clean up the spots you missed. Heck, give them a superhero cape, and play pretend as the Cleanup Kid saves the living room from the Evil Dust Bunnies.
Preschoolers thrive on rewards and positive reinforcement (who doesn’t?). Starting around age 3, incentives can go a long way toward encouraging kids to participate in chores.
“Sticker charts for preschoolers are a great way to show that a task is completed, especially when you follow up with a small reward after a set goal is completed,” Dr. O’Connor says.
Preschoolers can start to understand they have a responsibility to help others. Watering plants or feeding the dog, likely with grown-up supervision, is a good start.
At this age, kids can take part in making their beds and cleaning up spills. They can also help carry light bags and items short distances, such as bringing groceries from the car into the house and putting away food in the fridge or in a cabinet they can reach.
Kids in elementary school can start to take on some bigger tasks and take responsibility for themselves and their space.
Let your elementary school student help pack their lunch before school (maybe with a watchful eye from a parent who can remind them that cookies and a carrot don’t cut it as a balanced school lunch). They can also help with preparing meals for the family. At this age, kids can also take part in setting and clearing the table, as well as loading and unloading the dishwasher.
Around this age, establishing some ownership of their room or their space may begin to feel more important to children. Keeping their room organized, putting their clean clothes in their dresser or closet, and keeping the floors clean by vacuuming or sweeping are appropriate chores at this age, Dr. O’Connor says.
Tweens and early teens can start to take on more multi-step housework and can be responsible for helping to care for younger children.
Around this time, your tween and teen can take on chores like raking leaves, shoveling snow and other seasonal outdoor chores.
If you have younger children, now is a good time to enlist your early teen in more childcare responsibilities. Imagine all the chores you’ll get done while your older children fetch the little one’s milk and play endless rounds of hide-and-seek. (Or, better yet, take some time for yourself. You deserve it.)
High school is the time to ready your child for the full responsibilities of adulthood. In part that means being able to care for their own home.
“This is the age of getting teenagers prepared to transition leaving the home, so they should be able to start doing many tasks independently,” Dr. O’Connor says.
Your high schooler may have a lot of demands on their time — but practicing the balancing act that we call adulthood is an important part of developing into a grownup who can manage their time and prioritize competing needs. You can encourage this development by holding them accountable for certain chores.
“High schoolers should be able to prepare simple meals, keep up with maintaining a clean house by having a weekly chores list and keep their room tidy,” says Dr. O’Connor. “They should be able to manage their household responsibilities on top of their schoolwork, sports and after-school jobs.”
So, your child isn’t jumping for joy at the thought of washing the dishes? (Frankly, who is?) That’s OK. Some chore resistance is to be expected. Dr. O’Connor has some advice that will help you get started with a chore routine for your children and encourage their help.
“The best place to start is having a family meeting to discuss goals and setting up a calendar together to address expectations,” Dr. O’Connor says. Include your children in a discussion about how they’re important members of the household and that their contributions matter to the family.
Explain what each of their chores means. For example: “Clean your room” is vague. “Put your books on the shelf, put your dirty laundry in the hamper and put your Legos in this basket,” lets your kids know what’s expected of them.
Praise and tokens of appreciation can go a long way toward encouraging kids to complete their chores and give them a sense of accomplishment.
“Human beings thrive on positive reinforcement and rewards,” Dr. O’Connor notes.
Stickers are a fun and age-appropriate reward for a little kid, but they probably aren’t going to get you very far in incentivizing a pre-teen.
What about an allowance? Dr. O’Connor suggests cash in exchange for chores will vary based on your family and your values and expectations. If an allowance feels right for your family, wait for a time when children are old enough to understand the value of money. Allowance can also be a way for older kids to learn about money responsibility and management, she says.
As a parent, your child’s healthy development probably tops your list of priorities. Starting a chore routine early, focusing on age-appropriate chores, and keeping the housework fun and family-oriented will go a long way to putting your kids on their path to adulthood.