Household Chores for Children

Father and toddler sweeping kitchen

Are you wondering when your children will be ready to help with household chores? My family’s bumpy experience may help you decide that now is the time.

My family was terrible at sharing household chores with children because my husband and I took completely different approaches when the children were very young. I remember the conversations I had with my husband.

“Let her help you wash the dishes.”
“It’s easier just to do it myself.”

He was right. It is easier and faster to just do it yourself. The point wasn’t to get the work done, though, but to let children learn the work, to let children learn that they are important to the functioning of the household.

Once they hit a certain age, my husband expected them to do chores, but they didn’t have a strong pattern of helping yet.

“Ah! So, that’s what you meant.”

We had to work to bridge the gap between parents’ expectations and childrens’ habits. We caught up later than I would have liked, but now each person in the family has responsibility for certain areas.

We don’t have a perfect system. When there is a bigger job, the two teenagers moan about having to help one another, but they often help one another anyway. We have a generally functional and moderately liveable household, and my children feel ownership and responsibility for the housedold—a household that is messier than I’m happy with but cleaner than others might be willing to live with. (Ahem.)

Where to Start Children with Chores

Start when they start. When a child plays alongside you working—washing dishes or folding laundry—share your chore with your young child. It’s play for your child at this stage, but it also helps them learn the vocabulary of work around the house.

Child with toy cooking set

Play in parallel to your work. A toddler wants to do what you are doing, so they will pretend to do your work. The kitchen is an ideal place to make a space for a toddler to play at your work. We made a simple kitchen out of cardboard boxes, and my children spent a lot of time there while I was in the kitchen. That wasn’t as fancy as the beautiful wooden kitchen sets we carry at bynature.ca. We find that toddlers want toys that let them be part of the flow of the family.

Grow as they grow. Make assigned chores age- and person-appropriate. A toddler can carry folded laundry, but it might not arrive folded. If you don’t mind that, it’s a simple job. The younger the child, the simpler and more specific the chores need to be. You could make their chores dependent on an adult. “When I pour out the dog’s food, you put the bowl down and feed her.” An older child, especially one who has been doing chores in parallel with an adult already, needs less specific instruction. My children gradually figured out how to wash their own clothes then fold and distribute clothes to the whole family. That involves a string of many tasks, each of which they did separately before they just stepped in to take care of laundry. They actually divided laundry between themselves, with one gathering and starting the washer and the other drying and carrying laundry to the bed, where they fold together.

Don’t expect perfection. Thank your child specifically for what they did and how they did it. Rather than “You didn’t do that as well as I would have,” you could say, “I like how you scrubbed and rinsed each plate. Thank you for doing that.” It’s about more than just getting the job done.

Explain the role. Don’t just focus on the immediate task, but explain the role your child plays. “We all live here, and we all help one another.” I want my children to understand that they are important within the whole family.

Explain the goal. Like explaining the role, I like my children to get the big picture with the goal behind their chores. The goal isn’t to move an armful of recycling to the garage; the goal is to clear the counter so we cook in a clean and clear space. The goal isn’t to spend one hour weeding; the goal is to clear the old plants from the garden before winter. (This was a conversation just yesterday as my son and I walked through our garden that is full of both last year’s dried plants and this year’s optimistic yet confused little flowers. We failed to clear the garden before winter.)

Make it fun. When everyone is cleaning together, we turn on music, and we all sing along. It makes us sound like the von Trapp family, but it’s more like 80s karaoke. Our attitudes as adults toward household chores will rub off on our children.

Make an assignment. To make it easier to remember and to help your child feel more responsibility for the work, assign chores and acknowledge the assignment until everyone remembers.

It’s All Part of the System

Chart? I have tried many different chart systems as reminders: magnetic grids with movable pieces, calendars, me hovering over everyone. None of this worked for us. They seem to work for others, though, so I think they are worth trying for your family.

Domains. What has worked for us is dividing chores into four general domains for the four family members: kitchen, garden, tidying throughout the house, and away from home errands. We do have other jobs, but we own these areas. Once we distributed responsibility, we had less complaining about messiness and fewer questions about who would remedy the situations.

Meeting. Our new family meeting routine gives us a space to talk about non-routine chores or figure out why things aren’t getting done.

For example, I have a black dog and light blue carpet. Dog fuzz shows. My son is responsible for keeping the floor clean.

“Why isn’t the carpet clean?”
“I can’t use the vacuum because there aren’t any vacuum bags.”

So, my husband is assigned the task of chasing around the city to find a vacuum bag that fits our ancient vacuum, then the floor is clean—or will be clean, since we finally got the bags yesterday.

When we’ve done 30-day challenges to tackle certain difficult areas of our house, we all pitch in.

Everyone in my family participates. We don’t all do equal work, but we do all feel free to ask for help when the work is more than we can handle. It took a while to arrive at a smooth(ish) system.

I hope sharing how we got here will help you as your young children learn to participate in household chores.

Image © Mast3r | Dreamstime.com - Father And Daughter Cleaning In The Kitchen Photo

Attachment

Happy family in bed

As a natural parenting store, many of the parenting tools sold at bynature.ca and at our store in Orillia, Ontario, encourage secure attachment between parent and child. We encourage parents to respond to their baby’s cues.

We extend that to our other relationships as well. We listen to parents when they come to our store to hear what it is they need. Especially in our in-store workshops, trained staff help parents find the methods or the tools that meet their needs.

All of us as humans create attachments to those who are sensitive to and responsive to our needs. Psychologists and other scientists explore these attachments through attachment theory, a model that attempts to explain how the attachments are formed.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory within developmental psychology is based on observation of parent/child relationships since the mid-20th century. In the past few decades, psychologists have also considered application to adult attachment, such as between romantic partners, siblings, friends, and even animals.

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist who observed emotionally disturbed children in the 1930s. The observation of disfunctional older children helped Bowlby to consider the role in that disfunction of early separations of a baby from the mother. He wrote about his clinical observations from 1950 for the next 40 years he tried to understand the lasting connections between humans and develop a theory of infant attachment.

The telling moment for the child is separation. How will an infant react to being separated from mother or primary caregiver? Bowlby found a sequence of:

  • Protest – either protesting the threat of separation or responding to actual separation by crying and searching for the mother.
  • Despair – if the mother can’t be found, the child becomes quieter and more withdrawn, even mourning the loss.
  • Detachment – either rejecting adults or, if the mother returns, being clinging and fearful of separation.

(From Jessica Zucker, Ph.D., “The Birth of Attachment Theory,” PBS.org.)

It’s this sequence from clinical observations that helps me to understand attachment.

Attachment Parenting

Observation and published research only goes so far. It’s interesting to follow those threads into application of the findings.

Deliberate application of attachment theory to specific choices in parenting is not new, but the label “attachment parenting” was new with Dr. William Sears’ and Martha Sears’ publications, including The Baby Book, originally published in 1992. This is the book many of us have read and followed in our parenting.

For the Sears, parents put attachment into practice through:

  1. Birth bonding
  2. Belief in the signal value of a baby’s cry
  3. Breastfeeding
  4. Babywearing
  5. Bedding close to baby
  6. Balance and boundaries
  7. Beware of baby trainers

Attachment in Marriage

Early research mentioned attachment in adults, finding that intimate adult relationships (not just romantic relationships) function similarly to infant-caregiver relationships—with exceptions.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s, though, that researchers specifically applied attachment theory to adult relationships.

One place we can find the application of attachment theory for adults is in Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT).

Attachment with Animals

Bowlby’s ideas were influenced by his reading of studies with animals (ethology), and he saw his application of the ideas to humans in a longer, evolutionary context. Nevertheless, there was some difficulty in early research as scientists were excited to generalize animal research (imprinting) to humans.

Research continues into animal imprinting, animal-human attachment, and animal roles in human-human attachment, but that research can’t necessarily be considered equivalent to human attachment research.

I did notice, when my family got a dog 7 years ago, that one of the books we bought to help us be a better dog family, Parenting Your Dog by Trish King, addressed separation with puppies and separation anxiety in older dogs who missed out on healthy separation during the essential period of 2-4 months old. This is a clear, kind, practical guide to raising a happy dog. It reminded me a lot of the sort of advice I got from Dr Sears’s Baby Book.

Share Attachment Ideas with Your Family

As my children grew up, I explained my choices to them. I talked to them about sensitivity to their needs as well as boundaries. It’s the continuous meta-conversation about our conversations.

Each of my teenagers has recently taken a psychology class, where a full week was spent learning about attachment theory. Hearing their response to the academic study of attachment after having lived through the practical application leaves me satisfied with their travel through this phase of life. I can see that they become sensitive to the needs and cues of others beyond intimate attachment situations. As I had hoped, they are generally kind people. (Though they are still teenagers, with the hiccups that phase brings.)

If you have older children (perhaps 10+ or 13+, depending on the child) and you want to deepen your conversations about emotions, you might want to watch together This Emotional Life, a NOVA television series shown on PBS in the U.S. Watching this series sparked long, deep conversations among my family members at a time when some children are hiding emotions, when they think no one else in the world shares or cares about theirs.

I also found the supplemental materials from the documentary provide an informed but comprehensible introduction to the psychology of emotions, including attachment. (See history of attachment theory and “Pave the Path to Presence.“)

Meeting a child’s needs can lead to a secure attachment style; neglecting a child’s needs can lead to an insecure attachment style. As adults, we might trust that our partners, sibling, friends, and others will meet our needs, leaving us feeling secure in those relationships, or we might not trust that our needs will be met, leaving us feeling insecure in those relationships. We can apply this to dogs or other animals feeling secure or insecure in their relationships as well.

Bringing the needs of another—a baby, a partner, a pet—into our own awareness then acting to meet those needs rewards us and them. We all benefit from the security of those around us.

Image © Viki2win | Dreamstime.com - Happy Family In Bed Photo

Clutter Really Does Stress You Out

Cluttered house

I keep seeing references to clutter causing depression. Then, I see photos like look like Real Simple magazine or a zen monastery, suggesting that I am depressed if my house doesn’t look like that.

Sure, a tiny part of me is tugged toward wanting a state of perfect household simplicity, but I find the perfectionist judgment more stressful than the clutter itself.

Does clutter cause depression? When I dig into the fine print, these references seem to lead back to a 9-year research project at UCLA on dual-income, middle-class families with school-age children. The book documenting the study, Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century, ends up being a story of stuff and clutter.

Researchers didn’t actually make the clutter-depression connection. That was a very short blog post barely about the study, published when the book was released in 2012. Researchers did measure cortisol levels of study participants (through a saliva test), and they did find a link between high cortisol (a stress response) and clutter—but only among the women who worried about clutter.

Clutter didn’t cause depression—at least that isn’t what this study found. Cluttered houses caused stress when the women in the houses were bothered by it. Keep in mind that they had anthropologists and their team of photographers, videographers, and others tramping through the house, opening the closet doors. No wonder they were stressed.

But, those who took pride in their tchotchkes weren’t stressed.

University of California TV (UCTV) produced a three-part series of videos on A Cluttered Life: Middle-class Abundance on stuff, food, and space. If you are motivated to make changes to your life by seeing the lives of others, it’s worth the 20 minutes to watch these shows to see what families and the researchers say about clutter. It sure helped me to see my stale areas of clutter from a fresh point of view.

Yes, but MY Clutter

My house has areas where stuff gathers—like a tumbleweed picking up bits of yarn, pencils, stray books, and such. I don’t mind it until those tumbleweeds grow into my useful spaces.

I don’t love the clutter. I don’t love getting rid of the clutter, either, so THAT is the spot where I will focus.

Why keep the clutter? How does it serve me?

Having a stack of books reminds me that I really want to read them. Then, when I spread the books out and look through them, I realize I no longer really want to read them. Clutter be gone. 

Having a tote with sewing projects near the general homeschooling area gives me something to do when I listen to my children read. It looks a bit messy, but I use that stuff, and it is a changing mass of 3-4 projects I can choose from. Clutter can stay.

I’ve been evaluating my areas of mess to see if they actually serve a purpose and, if so, whether that is a worthy purpose.

I mentioned that my family is focusing on our kitchen. Holy junk mail. I don’t think I’ve ordered from a catalog for at least 9 years, but there is my kitchen table covered in catalogs that I have to hold until I tear off my identifying information. Maddening. So, I stand at my kitchen table and tear off my name and address. I put the catalog in the recycling pile and the address in the shredding pile. It’s a long process. The task doesn’t seem to quite end.

Mail is the ugly clutter cause in my house, but the cause will be different for each of us. Don’t just clean it up. Cut the clutter by finding the cause and cutting it off. You can actually opt-out of a lot of junk mail, including pre-screened credit and insurance offers or catalog, through direct-mail associations. You probably also need a place to put the stuff that legitimately requires your attention: incoming mail, invitations to keep, and bank statements. Get rid of what you can, then organized what you can’t.

Just identify your clutter causes, and address those in addition to clearing out clutter and cleaning the house.

Then, Keep It Clean

Need a guide to regularly keeping your house in order? This may seem like an odd suggestion, but I find Martha Stewart’s home organizing and housekeeping printable checklists just the kind of relentless system that keeps me from trying to justify not cleaning. If you are keeping a family binder, even better. You can print 6 things to do every day, weekly or monthly lists, seasonal lists, and specialized lists for maintenance and for moving.

It’s a place to start, so you don’t have an excuse not to.

Image © Jastebb | Dreamstime.com - Messy Room Photo

Will Family Meetings Help You?

Family meeting

Bringing ourselves to focus on what we want, making our expectations explicit, can help every family member come to a shared understanding about family chores, activities, highs, and lows. A simple family meeting gives you structure to make common ground happen.

Mindful Family

Over the past few months I’ve considered how mindfulness helps us as individuals, as parents, in teaching our children, and in our marriages or partnerships.

I find that meeting new ideas tends to be easier than integrating those new ideas into the fabric of life. So, now I’m sharing with you how my family is pulling mindfulness into our routines.

We’ve held family meetings on and off since my children were about 5-8 years old. It’s like meditation—you wander then you return. No judgment, just return.

We’re returning again, this time with a structure I picked up from Marcia Naomi Berger’s Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (2014).

Family Meeting Agenda

We are in week three of marriage meetings, which we started to celebrate our 20th anniversary, and in week two of family meetings. This is the easy part, though.

Marcia Berger suggests that you start with easy topics as you ease into the routine of meetings. I understand that. It’s a good idea to start with a guaranteed win before tackling the big issues.

The agenda for each meeting is the same:

  • Expressing appreciation
  • Coordinating chores
  • Planning for good times
  • Addressing problems and challenges

For more explanation of the four parts of the meeting agenda, I recommend you read Marriage Meetings. It has certainly helped my family.

Scheduling Family Meetings

She suggests a marriage meeting of no more than 30 minutes. Since we have four people in the family meeting, we have given 45 minutes.

To keep the meeting-ness of this time together from being overwhelming, we are scheduling marriage meetings on Sunday, game night on Monday, and family meetings on Tuesday. We just have a short commitment each evening, then we are free to be together or apart as usual.

Younger children are more likely to to follow your lead. I didn’t have any trouble getting my children to sit with me when they were small, but I did find that I needed to translate ideas for their developmental levels. At that stage, I bought a book with ideas for meeting topics. We talked about how to adjust our house to our needs, how to have fun together, and how to be kind to one another. That’s not much different than the structure we’re adopting now.

Now, though, I have teenagers who have strong opinions.

So far (just ONE meeting with this structure), they have embraced this weekly check in. We recorded our commitments in our upgraded family binder, and we’ve followed through.

You Create the Structure You Need

The four-part agenda is just one idea of how to structure a regular check-in with your family. Try it. Try other ideas. Just find a way to give your each of your family members a regular place and time to share their needs.

Image © Sebcz | Dreamstime.com - Family Discussion Photo

Is Your Family Organized?

Household Organization Notebook

As your children grow older and have more activities out of the house, as you juggle food preferences or sensitivities, as your family and your household becomes more complex, how do you hold it all together? Any family can benefit from a family binder for household management and family organization.

A 3-ring binder has the benefits of being easy to carry around, easy to customize, and easy to fit all of the tools you need to manage your household as it grows and changes.

Much as with mindfulness meditation, simply pulling oneself back to focus is one of the most important steps to moving forward. Organizing your family and putting your often used tools in one place makes it easy to bring yourself back to focus when you slip—and you will slip. That’s OK. Just keep coming back.

What Goes in the Binder

What goes in your family binder depends completely on what you need to track. Some possibilities are:

  • Calendar – Most families need a shared calendar.
  • Meal Planner – My family has been using the Menu Planner from Homemade by Carmona for the past year. I found it through a colorful photo on Pinterest, and I kept it because I like the flexibility.
  • Mail – We are separating into Incoming Mail, Mail that Needs Attention, and Papers to File
  • Budget
  • Coupons
  • Receipts
  • Shopping List
  • School Papers

Recently, I’ve been noticing which piles my husband lets build up in his area of the kitchen. Primarily, it’s mail that he needs to reach mixed in with mail he needs to file mixed with coupons he’s forgotten until after they expired. The mess makes the collection difficult to use, so I added folders to his binder for each different type of papers.

What you need specifically depends on your family. If you look for home management binders online, you will find list after list of sections along with downloadable forms you can use. Knowing my own tendency to be distracted by my tools, lost in contemplating 98 unused sections of a binder while ignoring the 2 sections crying out for attention, I add only what I know is needed when the need becomes pressing.

If you are distractable like I am, keep your binder minimal.

How We Are Using the Binder

For my family, the binder is the anchor for a whole room—at least that is my husband’s plan for it.

Last year, I used a simple 30-day eco habits challenge to clear away clutter. My family has used this method throughout the year to clear away layers of old stuff. The reason this works for me—for all of us—is the micro commitments are easy to make, and they add up quickly to big improvements.

This month, we are in the midst of another 30-day challenge. My husband, the owner of our family binder, wants to transform our kitchen into his headquarters. He’s motivated because he is going to reward himself with a new laptop once his goal of an organized kitchen is reached.

All of the random papers he used to let flow all over the kitchen are currently in the binder. Now, the binder is a way station for papers as well as a meal planner, shopping list, and receipt holder. We are about to add family meeting notebook to the list as well.

After I introduced my husband to the marriage meeting idea last week, I suggested we use that structure for family meetings. He likes this and has decided to add the family meeting outline to the binder. We also added a spiral-bound notebook where each family member can add ideas for the family meetings in advance (“I need new shoes,” “Let’s go hiking,” or “I want to invite my friends for a sleepover”). We have trouble remembering what we’ve committed to in meetings, so we are using the notebook to remind ourselves.

We’ve been using the binder for a while as a meal planner, so the expansion to new functions as an overall household management tool is new to us.

What Doesn’t Fit in the Binder

Not all important papers belong in a binder you carry around. Start now while you still remember where your important papers are. Gather your insurance policies, homeowner’s or renter’s documents, birth certificates, passports, and other paper. Put these in a fireproof box with a handle. Store them near an exit so you can pick them up and take them with you if you need to leave the house in an emergency.

As you organize your family, notice what doesn’t fit and find other ways to accommodate your family’s organization needs.

Image © Khongkitwiriyachan | Dreamstime.com - Brown Monthly Planner with Notedbook and Pen Photo