It's not my turn!" "I'll do it later." "Why do I get all the gross jobs?"
If you've ever stumbled over the same bag full of garbage for days on end, you know that getting your kids to help out with family chores is often more work than cleaning the whole house yourself. Still most of us keep plugging away, hoping against hope that our kids will wake up one Saturday morning and ask, "Hey Mom, how can I help out around the house today?"
Part of the reason it's tough to establish a consistent regimen of shared household tasks is that this process is at the mercy of so many variables: energy of the parent, resistance of the child, tv schedules, soccer car pools, homework, cycle of the moon, anticipation of Second Coming, etc. No wonder an ordinary, over-burdened, guilt-plagued parent is tempted to give up.
However, contrary to what your kids might tell you, those few minutes spent setting the table, dusting the furniture, mowing the lawn, and, yes, taking out the garbage are actually essential to their character formation. It might even surprise you to learn that it's the kids who reap the most long-term rewards from family chores. In fact, many child development experts believe that children who participate in household tasks develop a sense of competency, self-worth, and compassion for others that really can't come any other way.
According to Dr. Ed Wimberly, author of Raising Great Kids (Journey Publications), "Kids who are a part of completing chores grow up feeling like they are an intricate part of a team, feeling needed, and that they matter. Without this sense of relevance that comes as a result of helping, kids have a hard time believing in their worth and value."
This sense of their own worth then feeds into their ability to care for others. "Good self-esteem," says Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, in an article in Family Circle magazine, "gives a child the capacity for empathy."
From a biblical perspective, work is not an option. We are to work to take care of our family needs and to serve the needs of others, even when we don't feel like it. Such is the nature of Christlike servanthood. In 2 Thessalonians 3:13, the apostle Paul writes, "And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right."
Our kids resist housework for obvious reasons, primarily because some things—okay, most things—are more fun than scrubbing a toilet. But we parents do our part to sabotage our efforts to gain the cooperation of our children as well. Experts point to two main reasons today's parents have a hard time instituting regular family chores: less time and parental guilt.
Children need to be shown how to do a task, which takes time. They need supervision (at least at the beginning) and encouragement—both of which also involve a big investment of time. Parents who have spent most of their week juggling schedules, heading to the office, or keeping the household running have minimal energy or desire to spend the free hours they have with their kids as nagging disciplinarians.
In addition, parents tend to feel guilty about asking their children to help around the house when the kids seem to have enough on their plates already. Or we have a hard time requiring our kids to participate in chores because we want them to have fun and be happy.
However, these excuses, which seem perfectly legitimate on the surface, actually backfire. "It's ironic," says Dr. William Damon, author of Greater Expectations (Free Press), "that the real self-esteem kids need comes from achievement that requires hard work, including the drudgery of chores."
Making Work Work
Knowing the importance of family chores in developing our children's self-worth and compassion can give parents a firmer base on which to stand when challenged by outside demands or kid resistance. It allows us to see family chores as something we are doing for and with our children, not just work that has to get done. It can also lead us to be more intentional in our approach to family chores.
Rather than just announcing that it's time to clean up and randomly assigning tasks, we can make a plan and give our children jobs that are targeted to their character formation. For example, if my son is struggling with patience, I might give him a job that takes a little effort to do well, like weeding the garden or cleaning the mirrors. If my daughter is getting bossy, I might give her a job that entails following a sibling's directions.
Still, no one likes housework, so you'll need to find ways to entice your children to participate a bit more willingly. Dr. Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, suggests changing the name of what you are doing and therefore changing the perception. Brooks refers to family tasks as "contributions" to the family rather than "chores." This kind of subtle shift in language can give kids the message, "We need your help." It elicits a more positive response than telling them they must do chores. Brooks says, "Children are more willing to do things and more likely to develop a responsible attitude when they feel that they are being helpful."
Experts also suggest involving your kids in the process of determining when and how chores (I mean, contributions) will be done. One way is to have weekly family meetings where jobs can be divided up, giving children a sense of being part of a team. Allowing the kids some say in how chores are handled is a wonderful way for them to learn that housework is a family responsibility, something we do with each other, for each other.
The Clean Sweep
It also can be helpful to have a visual aid so it's clear what the chore is and who does what. Some families use stickers that go up when a job is completed. In our family, the most successful method was a chart taped on the refrigerator with the job listed across the top and the kids' names down the side. Naturally, there were chores no one wanted and others everyone hoped for. Setting and clearing the table was regarded as much more desirable than loading the dishwasher, for example. The chores were organized on a weekly rotation schedule with a month or two worth of dates listed, so that a child who had a job he loathed knew he'd be free of it in a week.
Be sure the chore is something that children can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time; the younger the child, the simpler and shorter the chore. On the other end of the scale, teenagers may need a lighter load as outside activities and jobs require more of their time. Take your cues from your kids (within reason, of course). If they seem overwhelmed by a task even after repeated help and encouragement, help them find a new job to do instead. You want them to gain confidence and a sense of accomplishment, so don't let them get overwhelmed.
Parents are often surprised that children don't automatically know how to make a bed or sweep a floor, so give the necessary instructions and equipment to complete the job. The best way to do this is to work with your children at first. It's also a good idea to write down the steps to follow or draw pictures for younger children.
You should be as specific as possible about what constitutes task completion. The concept of clean will mean something very different to your 6-year-old son than it does to you. If you want a child to tidy up his room, be clear about what that means—bed made, toys picked up and put away, clothes in the laundry or back in their drawers, etc. The extra time it takes to explain a job not only increases the odds that the job will get done correctly; your children are less likely to become frustrated when they know what's expected of them and know they have the tools and ability to pull it off.
Provide lots of praise and encouragement, but be specific. Praise the accomplishment, not the child. For example, rather than saying, "What a good boy!" comment on how well the silverware is lined up with the plate, or how neatly the napkins are folded. Emphasize your appreciation for your children's contributions to a home atmosphere everyone can enjoy.
Finally, resist criticism, no matter how tempting. And don't do the chore if your child forgets or refuses, don't redo, and don't nag. Instead, suggests Brooks, ask, "What's the best way to remind each other if we forget our job?" and model a response, such as, "This is how I would like you to remind me." Provide logical consequences if the chore isn't done in a timely manner. A logical consequence might be additional work: "I see you need practice helping out. Why don't you clear the table, too." Let the kids have some say in what the consequences might be. That will make consequences a bit easier to swallow when the time comes to dole them out.
By whatever name you call them, household tasks are often boring, repetitive and, well, work. Take a break; have a day designated "No Chore Day," or, periodically lighten things up. One of my kids' favorite memories is "Mom's Fun Camp," which was born out of Mom's Desperation one summer. From 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. we had Camp House Patrol, when we tidied up designated rooms. Then we had Free Time, followed by Mess Hall, followed by Camp Activities, which were outings suggested by camp members. The result was a relatively neat house and a good time, too!
Sometimes, though, kids just have to do the job even when it is boring, and that's part of the process. "Learning to work in our families," says my friend June, whose grown children are involved in active ministries, "really means learning to express an active love. In other words, when we love each other, we help each other."
Pamela Shires Sneddon is the mother of nine. She and her family live in California.
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