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Raise a Can-Do! Kid

   When Allison Carter, an organization coach, got tired of doing the endless piles of laundry her family generated, she didn’t hire a housekeeper. Instead, she taught her 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to wash their own clothes, fold and put them away. Not only has this step lightened Carter’s housework, it has been good for the kids, too. “If you run a full-service household, your kids may never learn how to do practical things like laundry or pick up after themselves,” Carter says.

  Indeed, studies show that having children pitch in around the house provides an opportunity to teach them responsibility, organization, regard for others and a general sense of capability that can serve them well throughout their lives. Still, a Wellesley University study found that parents now typically only give their kids trivial jobs, such as putting dishes in the dishwasher. Schoolwork is their main task.

  “Although homework and academic curriculums may be much more demanding than in the past, children may not be doing enough to help around the house to develop a sense of competence,” says Markella Rutherford, Ph.D., author of Adult Supervision Required and the study’s co-author.

  Guilty! At my house, for example, I often find myself setting the table while my kids do their homework, which just feels, well, wrong. Isn’t setting the table a kid’s job? It sure was when I was growing up.

  Of course, chores aren’t something you can expect your kids to want to do. You probably don’t look forward to scrubbing the toilet or taking out the trash, and neither will they. But because doing them fosters so much more than just getting a job done, they’re worth incorporating into your child’s busy schedule.

  Here’s how to help your kids learn to clean up their act and teach them invaluable life lessons.

  Stop being a pick-up artist. A natural place to start with household chores is teaching your kids to pick up after themselves, which likely means resisting the urge to pick up after them. Consider: “Every time you pick up after everyone, you reinforce the behavior and condition them to keep cluttering,” says clinical psychologist, Josh Klapow, Ph.D.

  Your family learns that if they leave their stuff around, you’ll bail them out. Instead, teach them to pick up after themselves by stating a rule, such as “I’d like you to take your dirty dishes into the kitchen before going to bed so we don’t come down to a messy living room in the morning.” If dirty dishes are still there in the morning, let them pile up, even if it’s several days’ worth.

  Consistency is key. Whatever you do, don’t touch the dishes, no matter how much they bother you. Then, just keep stating the rule, emphasizing that as a family, you all need to do your part to keep the house neat. When kids finally get the message (they will), reinforce that behavior with praise, as in “Thank you for bringing your dirty dishes into the kitchen. I love how clean the living room is.” In time, picking up will become as much of a habit for them as expecting you to do it once was, Klapow says.

  Assign tasks based on your child’s age. It’s never too early to enlist your child’s assistance. Even preschoolers can place napkins on the table, help match the socks and put their toys away. From preschool to the lower elementary grades, you’ll need to do the task with them until they’re old enough to do it themselves. Even a first grader isn’t likely to clean the living room solo. Emphasize, “We’re doing this together” without getting angry. But over the years, you can expect kids to do more without your support or reminding. Eventually, the process will become ingrained and your kids will tidy up automatically.

  Based on your child’s age and stage, the tasks they can be expected to handle (from toddlers to teens) might include putting their toys away, putting their backpack away after school, putting their clean clothes in their dresser drawer, loading and emptying the dishwasher, taking out the garbage, setting the table, vacuuming and dusting, mowing the lawn, washing the car, doing the laundry, making dinner and, later, doing household errands around town with the family car.

  Rotate chores as much as possible, given your children’s ages, so that no one gets stuck with the same job. One idea? Put all the chores that need to be done into a hat. Whatever gets drawn is your child’s job for the week. You can also encourage your kids to work together, which fosters cooperation and problem solving. “See if they can sort the tasks out by themselves,” says Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D., president of the Better Parenting Institute, as in ‘you dust the furniture while I pick up all the dog’s toys.’” That teaches another life skill: teamwork.” 

  Focus on the outcome. Offer an incentive to clean up. For example, tell your kids that once they’ve picked up their toys, they can go to the playground. Or once they’ve cleaned the den after their slumber party, then you can all go shopping. Or once they’ve emptied the dishwasher, then they can go to their friend’s house. That’s not bribing. Rather, it makes them understand that completing chores makes other fun activities possible. Keep it positive by focusing on how clean the playroom, or whatever room they’re tackling, will look when they’re done. Concentrate on public areas in your house, the common ground you all inhabit, where kids get the greatest sense that “we’re all in this together” and consider letting them do what they want with their bedroom. “Short of breeding MRSA, I think a child’s bedroom should be off limits to housekeeping rules,” says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist and author of Take Out Your Nose Ring Honey. We’re Going to Grandma’s.

  Don’t be a nag. If you’re always reminding your kids to do their chores, they’ll learn to depend on you for that cue. Instead, help them remember to do tasks without prodding by teaching them to evaluate their own work. “If you go into the bathroom and see the towels on the floor again, for example, instead of saying, ‘Pick up the towels,’ ask your child: ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’” Panaccione says.

  Another option is to assign your kids their own designated towel. If it ends up on the bathroom floor again, so be it. That’s what they get to use next time, which is a logical consequence for not hanging the towel up.

  Make it fun. Instead of having each person take on individual projects, team up to make jobs go faster. “See who can finish their cleaning project the fastest, while delivering the best results,” says Gregg Murset, the CEO of BusyKid, an online chore chart that allows kids to receive an allowance from their parents each Friday that they can earn, save, share, spend and invest wisely.

  Pile on the praise. “Giving lots of praise, especially in the beginning, for every helpful thing your child does, even if it’s small, helps reinforce the behavior,” Panaccione says. But rather than “You’re the greatest laundry folder in the world,” you might say, “Oh, wow! You’re doing such a great job folding all the laundry. I’m so proud of you for helping out.” “Make your accolades authentic,” Panaccione says. Kids love it when you recognize their contribution and honestly express gratitude; it’s a competence and confidence booster.


Sandra Gordon is an award-winning writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting and consumer issues. 


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