Getting kids to do chores can seem like a chore in itself. If they don’t refuse, they moan and groan. If they don’t moan and groan, they drag their feet. If they don’t drag their feet, they do a sloppy job.
It’s enough to convince parents they’re better off scrubbing the tub, mowing the lawn or loading the dishwasher themselves. And they may be right. But they also may be missing the point, says Jeff Starkey, a Federal Way resident and father of three.
“The purpose of chores isn’t just about getting the work done,” says Starkey. “It’s also about turning little human beings into big human beings—and not having them boomerang home,” he adds with a laugh.
Somewhere between Captain Kangaroo and SpongeBob SquarePants, chores appear to have slipped from rule to exception. A recent survey from Psychology Today magazine cited in The Boston Globe reported that fewer than 25 percent of parents expect their children to do chores.
That doesn’t surprise Laura Kastner, PH.D., clinical psychologist and associate professor in psychiatry/behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. Kastner senses parents are asking less from their children these days, despite the fact that most believe chores are an important part of growing up.
“It takes willpower, and there will be acrimony,” Kastner says. “Sometimes parents get overwhelmed and say forget it, it’s easier to do it myself.”
Starkey and his wife, Sandy, are not in that camp. Their three children—now 20, 19 and 16—started doing chores when they were 4. The goal: introduce their children to work, instill a sense of shared responsibility and prepare them to live on their own.
At first, their chores revolved mostly around learning to care for themselves by brushing their teeth, combing their hair and making their beds. The older they got, the more advanced the chores—and the more significant the life lessons. Their final exam before leaving for college: doing all the grocery shopping for a year.
The Starkeys are spot on with their chore-losophy, says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog featured on the Seattle Children’s website. “Chores are about helping your child transition from dependency to true independency,” she says.
Some parents give their children a pass on chores as long as the kids give their all in school, sports and other activities. But that doesn’t make them feel part of something greater than themselves the way that pitching in at home does, says Swanson.
Nor does it teach them the life skills—and the tolerance for yucky but necessary tasks—they’ll need when they finally leave the nest. “That ‘pass’ feels like you’re raising a prince or a princess,” Swanson says. “What are they going to do when they go away to college?”
The argument that kids are too busy with homework, soccer practice or dance lessons doesn’t cut it with Kastner. “I’m not talking about an hour and a half of forced labor,” she says. “I’m talking about 10 minutes.”
Taking the time
The challenge for parents is to summon up the patience and commitment needed to introduce chores. “It’s going to take more time to teach it than to do it yourself, but if you think about kids as an investment in the future, than it’s really important to take the time,” says Chris Koehler, a parenting and family relations faculty member of the Washington State University Extension.
Lisa and Robert Dini of northeast Tacoma took the time to assign their 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter a list of household chores ranging from vacuuming to mopping the kitchen floor. “I’ve seen an incredible amount of improvement in their skill level,” Lisa says. “They’ve learned a lot about what it takes to keep a home organized and clean.” The cherry on top? “They’re making my life a lot easier,” Lisa says.
Opinions vary on tying allowances to chores. “If the allowance isn’t big enough, they won’t do the work,” Koehler says. Swanson says it all depends on what matters most to parents: reinforcing what it means to be part of a family, or establishing the relationship between work and money.
The Dinis do some of both. They require their kids to complete certain tasks as members of the family, such as feeding the pets and cleaning their rooms, but tie their $10-per-week allowance to completing other chores. “We don’t pay their allowance if they don’t do their chores, but they’ve never not done their chores,” Lisa says.
While the Starkeys don’t believe in paying for chores, they turned a few tasks (such as mowing the lawn) into chores for cash as their children grew older. And—in an effort to make them smart shoppers—they let their children keep the difference between the monthly grocery budget and what they actually spent when they were responsible for the shopping.
There were some ground rules, though. “They knew they couldn’t buy a bag of rice and a bag of beans and expect to keep the rest,” Jeff says.
Brad Broberg is a freelance writer who lives with his wife and teenage daughter in Browns Point. Before starting his freelance career, Broberg was a reporter and editor at several South King County newspapers for more than 20 years.