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

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

The Science of Marriage & Partnership

Couple talking

Especially when you have young children and you are building relationships within the family as a whole, it’s easy to forget the relationship that got you there: your relationship with your spouse.

Today is my 20th wedding anniversary. That’s a big deal! It doesn’t seem like it could possibly be that long, but here we are. My husband and I are taking the opportunity to go away alone together for the first time since we had children. I certainly don’t recommend that you wait that long, but we just didn’t have the family backup or the desire to leave them—until now.

We are also asking together what has worked so far and what might improve our relationshihp. When we were about to get married, a friend of mine who had recently been married suggested that we go through a workbook she used with her new husband, just to clarify our expectations to one another. I’m not sure whether it helped, but we had fun doing it. We decided it would be fun to get another workbook and check in on our expectations again.

What Helps a Marriage?

I’ve been sharing videos from the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center from a class I took recently on The Science of Happiness. I found the 13.5-minute video on marriage so helpful that I want to share the whole video with you.

Especially if you are still early in your marriage, taking steps to protect your relationship can help you find happiness together.

What doesn’t work? In the video we learn that researchers (John Gottman & Robert Levenson 2002) studied 75 couples early in their relationships. They asked the couples to sit down to have a 10-minute conversation. Then, they followed these couples for 14 years (now 26 years). They found that four specific behaviors predicted a couple will divorce within a decade.

  • Contempt – Look down on your partner.
  • Criticism – Find fault first.
  • Stonewalling – Shut down a conversation, common in the men in the study.
  • Defensive Counterpunch – Follow criticism with counter criticism.

What works? Inspired by this work, scientists looked for traits that predict happier couples and happier families. A few of the traits of happier couples are:

  • Humor – De-escalate tension.
  • Gratitude – Express appreciation, including in writing.
  • Forgiveness – Let go of grudges.
  • Disclosure – Open to hearing emotions of the other.

Consciously choosing the open communication techniques can help you. Watch the Greater Good Science Center video ”Relationships, Marriage, and Happiness” for more about what works and what doesn’t.

Attachment Marriage

After investigating the workbooks and marriage resources I could use with my husband, I found Dr. Sue Johnson. Her Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) is based on the same science of attachment theory as attachment parenting. I watched video after video of her speaking about what works for couples, I knew I had found a place to start.

EFT is “[t]he most successful approach to creating loving relationships, endorsed by the American Psychological Association as scientifically proven.” You know I look at the studies. Other therapies have been found to be 35% effective but “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, has achieved an astounding 75 percent success rate.” Granted, this is from the dust jacket of her book Hold Me Tight, but I was sold at attachment theory.

My husband and I are reading together Dr Johnson’s Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2008).

In the mindfulness posts over the past couple of months, I’ve tried to make the point that stopping and noticing, acting in a mindful way in our families and in the rest of our lives, helps us to face and embrace what we have.

To apply that thinking to marriage, I picked up another book: Marcia Naomi Berger’s Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (2014). A simple time investment following a few simple rules (including basic nonviolent communication) can bring you both to a place of awareness and common understanding.

I’m not far enough through either book to offer a review yet, but I will share what I find.

In the meantime, I will be celebrating twenty years with the kindest person I know, my husband Marc.

Image © Rocketclips | Dreamstime.com - Sweet African Couple Relaxing On Floor Talking Photo

Give the Gift of Togetherness

Playing board games with grandfather

We’ve been conditioned to think of gifts as things, material things that can be wrapped up and tied with a bow. What if gifts mean a little bit more?

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” ~Dr. Suess, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
(Since my family just watched this last night, and we’ve been quoting it to one another today.)

If we think bigger about what we need and want, about gifts that would really enrich our lives, we need time together. It’s tough to pull together a whole family from their busy lives, especially when one member of the family is gone 12 hours a day.

So, we guard our time together and we give one another the gift of togetherness.

My two teenagers don’t share all of the same interests, but they each agree to share time doing the other’s favorite activities so they can spend that time together. I sit with each of my children separately, and we read books to one another. My son has had an ongoing game group for a couple of years. Both of them play board games with friends.

And, when my husband is finally home, we play games together as a family. We have drawers and closets full of games, but we tend to come back to the same board games and card games over and over. It isn’t the games themselves that we are seeking, though.

We talk. We laugh. We bend and break the rules we don’t like. We help one another. We are ourselves together.

I’ve found that there are games families and non-games families. When we find game families, we show up at their houses with our games, and we blend. That’s what we have planned for New Year’s Eve.

Does it matter to you that playing board games increases attention and listening skills, enhances vocabulary, encourages higher thinking, or teaches good sportsmanship? (This list is from the work of Dr. Sylvia Rimm.) I hope it does. Even when the games you play aren’t played well and fairly, playing together can create lifetime bonds.

Set the habit of family game night now to get the positive ripple effect. You will get to know your children better. Your children will get to know you better. You’ll bond. You’ll engage in the very process of creating your family.

We carry a big collection of cooperative games and puzzles for a big range of ages. Stop by the store to be pick up puzzles, board games, and card games for the family for the holidays. Giving and playing games is one way to give the gift of togetherness. Sure, it’s a thing to wrap, but the point is a lot deeper. The point is the commitment to actually play the game together regularly.

Resources

Dr. Sylvia Rimm, PhD, “Families that Play Together, Stay Together,” SylviaRimm.com.

Ellie Gibson, “Board games don’t just bring us together – they remind us how to play,” The Guardian, 24 November 2014.

“Every Kid Needs Puzzles & Games,” EcoBabySteps, 11 December 2012. Highlights of a few of the games and puzzles we carry at bynature.ca.

“Teaching Children about Herbs for Health,” EcoBabySteps, 28 May 2011. About one of my family games for families: Wildcraft!

“Finding Life Balance: Family Time,” EcoBabySteps, 29 May 2012. About the real need to create the family you want, since it won’t just appear automatically.

Image ©  | Dreamstime.com